He is, however, tapping a populist tradition in Ohio. This is where politicians mounted challenges to the Standard Oil monopoly of John Rockefeller and where Senator John Sherman led a late 19th-century campaign to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was the first law to require the federal government to investigate companies suspected of running cartels and monopolies.
Mr. Cordray carefully describes his allegiance to capitalism, although he says the financial crisis should explode forever the efficient-markets theory, popular with economists, that the best market is a self-correcting one. (Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” shares space on his office bookshelf with books by the urbane Keynesian John Kenneth Galbraith.)
“The notion that banks will just get things right over time is perhaps true,” Mr. Cordray says. “But over what time period, and at what terrible cost to the individual American?”
Certainly, he has not minced words in pursuing a steady stream of cases against corporations.
He accused Marsh & McLennan of conspiring to eliminate competition in the insurance business by generating fictitious quotes. He denounced three credit rating firms, Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investor Services and Standard & Poor’s, for giving inflated ratings to packages of troubled mortgages put together by the big investment houses. He says that Ohio pension funds lost close to half a billion dollars by investing in those triple-A rated securities.
And last October, he accused Bank of America officials of concealing critical facts in the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, even as that firm careened toward insolvency. Top bankers, he said, had not come remotely clean about the extent of the losses at Merrill and its bonuses.
The lawsuit against Bank of America was the first of its kind, although Mr. Cordray’s actions drew rather less press than a lawsuit filed months later by Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo of New York. Mr. Cuomo, whose skill with the tactical leak, news release and the lawsuit is considerable, tends not to work closely with his fellow state attorneys general, say two officials from states other than Ohio.
Attorneys general are perhaps more successful at extracting large sums of money than in changing corporate behavior. A Goldman Sachs or Marsh & McLennan, to this view, tends to see such settlements as a cost of doing business.
“The settlements are large, but the changes in behavior don’t seem to be that large,” said Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Columbia Law School. “These targets have massive amounts of money to pay off and continue on their merry way.”
Raise this criticism to Mr. Cordray and he nods in agreement.
“In an ideal world, if the S.E.C. had done its job, that would be much better,” he said. “Our settlements make up for the losses fractionally.”
As it happens, Mr. Cordray now faces a more existential threat. Legal challenges to corporate misbehavior are not proven electoral gold. This year, Ms. Coakley, a Democrat, fell to Republican Scott Brown in a race to fill the Senate seat of Edward M. Kennedy.
And polls show Mr. Cordray running behind in his race with Mr. DeWine. He’s no natural glad-hander — he apologizes when he realizes he has automatically extended his hand at a luncheon. More paradoxical, he finds himself at risk of being identified with “them,” which is to say the establishment that Ohio residents view as having failed them.
Again, he shrugs. He is not inclined to blame voters for his troubles.
“Politicians are kind of like adolescents, always looking in the mirror and assuming that’s what people see,” he says. “But there’s a great anxiety out there, a great unease about our future. Most people are hurting, and they don’t have the time to pay attention to us.”