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Richard Cordray’s confirmation to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a hard-fought achievement

Charlene Crowell | 7/26/2013, 6 a.m.

Life poses a series of challenges for individuals, families and communities. But every now and then, a real victory comes along that reminds us that what is fair and just will eventually prevail. That was the lesson of the two-year saga to confirm Richard Cordray, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). 

The idea of a federal office focused solely on protecting the nation’s consumers arose in the wake of the worst financial calamity since the 1930s Great Depression. More than 2 million homes were lost to foreclosure and nearby homes lost value even while neighbors remained current on loan payments. The tsunami of foreclosures in communities of color drained nearly $1 billion of wealth. Eventually unemployment grew as workers, through no fault of their own, were laid off.

A then little-known Harvard professor, Elizabeth Warren, conceived the idea of a federal consumer watchdog but was flatly rejected to become its first director. President Obama then nominated Richard Cordray, a former Ohio Attorney General. Cordray received broad support across party lines. But fierce opposition to the idea of a consumer watchdog led to 44 U.S. Senators sending a letter advising President Obama that no nominee to lead the bureau, regardless of ability or experience, would be confirmed. 

In the meantime, CFPB staff went to work protecting consumers. They held field hearings, requested comment on proposed rules and, as required by the Dodd-Frank Act, made regular reports to both chambers of Congress every six months. Over 5 million consumers contacted CFPB with financial questions. An online consumer complaint system offered convenient access to not only file a complaint, but also to check its status.

To date, CFPB has returned nearly $500 million to consumers who were sold unfair or deceptive products in credit cards, auto loans and more. 

Despite these measurable pro-consumer actions, opposition to CFPB continued. Opponents insisted that the bureau’s governing structure change from a director to a commission.

In response, major news outlets from Portland, Maine to Los Angeles ran independent editorials and commentaries — all calling for Cordray’s confirmation. The July 11 Los Angeles Times editorial stated: “According to the official Senate historian, lawmakers have never before blocked a nominee because they didn’t like the way an agency was structured.”

Activism also played a major role. On July 15, Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) and the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) announced poll results that revealed still-growing support for CFPB. Taken July 8-11, the survey found that consumer support for CFPB grew by more than 10 percentage points over the past year. Strong support was evident among independents, Democrats and Republicans, with 83 percent saying that Wall Street should be held accountable with tougher rules and enforcement. 

A second survey released the same day by Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, found that 74 percent of respondents supported approval of a CFPB director to ensure that the bureau’s work is not interrupted.

On the day of the confirmation vote, consumer advocates delivered over 160,000 signed petitions calling for Cordray’s confirmation to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office. The effort was mobilized by AFR, Consumers Union, the American Federation of Labor and the National Council of La Raza.

Finally, after years of debates and delays, a vote on the confirmation was held and received a 66-34 tally. With a director confirmed for a full term of office, CFPB gains the full use of its powers. 

For all the frustrations now felt throughout the nation — but particularly in communities of color — the hard-fought CFPB outcome should inspire others to fight for what is right. It took many voices and many actions focused on achieving a single goal. Yes, other numerous challenges remain. Yet our collective resolve should never fade or grow weary. A better day will arrive when we dedicate our best efforts.

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending.