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Left vs. Left: Richard Cordray and Dennis Kucinich Battle for Governor of Ohio

AKRON, Ohio — Richard Cordray speaks softly and carries a big stack: lime-green index cards, pressed into his shirt pocket, near enough for any sudden onset of note-taking.

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Left vs. Left: Richard Cordray and Dennis Kucinich Battle for Governor of Ohio
, New York Times

AKRON, Ohio — Richard Cordray speaks softly and carries a big stack: lime-green index cards, pressed into his shirt pocket, near enough for any sudden onset of note-taking.

A former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he has been endorsed in his bid for Ohio governor by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has told him he needs to learn how to brag more. “I am pretty good at getting back people’s money,” Cordray managed before an outdoor crowd of dozens here recently. Polite applause followed. He is trying.

Dennis Kucinich speaks until someone interrupts him — and even this is often insufficient — and carries a bag of vegan groceries heavy enough to sink his right arm like a weight-bearing scale of justice.

A former congressman and presidential candidate also running for governor, he has been endorsed in the May 8 Democratic primary by allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who remember Kucinich’s lectern-pounding opposition to the Iraq War and his long-ago turn as the “boy mayor” of Cleveland.

“Dennis!” shouted Keith Thornhill, 58, a cape-wearing sidewalk busker who was a teenager when Kucinich, now 71, first ran the city. “Glad you’re back in the game, man.”

“Hey, Superman,” Kucinich said.

Since the election of President Donald Trump, certain conflicts have been inevitable for a Democratic Party asking itself how to win again: liberal or moderate candidates? Populist or pragmatist? Establishment or insurgent?

But in the race between Cordray and Kucinich — one of the year’s most closely watched Democratic primaries — a more basic tension has consumed the collective left: Who has the truest claim to progressivism in 2018, when both candidates can credibly grab at the label? Is it better to be liberal on guns (Kucinich) or the bane of the banks (Cordray)? To be a fire-breather or a bit of a square?

“There’s no stigma in being competent,” said Kevin Davis, 63, of Akron, a Cordray supporter and fundraiser who has gravitated toward the candidate’s work-within-the-system defense of responsive government. “Dennis just promises everything.”

“It’s hard not to be pulled into the vortex of Dennis Kucinich,” said Nina Turner, a former state senator and the president of Our Revolution, a group that was formed out of Sanders’ presidential campaign and that has endorsed Kucinich. “He’s infectious.” As Democrats look to reclaim a purple state shading red, recent history suggests a slog. Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points. It has a Republican-controlled Legislature and has had a Republican governor for all but four years since 1991. But the prospect of a Democrat-friendly election year and a whiff of scandal in Columbus — where the House speaker resigned this month as federal investigators questioned his conduct — has convinced strategists that even a proudly liberal candidate could win in November.

The Democratic primary has also doubled as an early proxy test for supporters of Warren and Sanders, two possible presidential candidates in 2020, and a peek at precisely what kind of figure can speak to today’s party base in a Midwestern bellwether.

Cordray, 58, a former state attorney general before his time in Washington, has campaigned with Warren, who devised the bank-regulating agency he oversaw under President Barack Obama. He is leaning heavily on support from unions like the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio AFL-CIO, specking public appearances with protect-the-little-guy anecdotes from his watchdog role in the hope that voters will not mistake boring for moderate.

There is talk of task forces and pension protections, of government “being a force for good” again. He can appear most animated condemning an “ongoing war on local communities” from budget-slashing state officials. And, like Kucinich, he has proposed making community college free for all Ohioans.

“He’s unassuming,” Warren said in an interview, recalling Cordray’s habit of wandering his office without shoes when pressed for a humanizing detail. “But he’s a fighter.”

Kucinich is, as ever, a less traditional case — Cleveland’s ubiquitous thrower of bombs, shaker of hands and enemy of animal products, now entering his second half-century in politics.

“Strange Political Amalgam in Ambitious Young Man,” read a 1972 headline about him in The Akron Beacon Journal.

“He defends Trump, sees UFOs,” read another from The Cincinnati Enquirer in March, alluding to Kucinich’s recent career as a Fox News pundit and his claim to have seen an unidentified flying object at the home of a friend, the actress Shirley MacLaine. “Can Kucinich win?"

He can, however improbably. Kucinich has emerged as the most persistent threat to Cordray, the presumed favorite, spooking party officials who fear Kucinich would stand little chance in the fall. Primary polling has been inconsistent: One recent survey showed the race effectively tied; another gave Cordray a double-digit edge, though more than half of respondents were undecided.

Kucinich is betting on a coalition of still-loyal former constituents: A brief stroll through Cleveland’s West Side Market recently included interactions with a woman whose father Kucinich once caddied for, a produce vendor who attended school with his sister and a police officer who worked security at his third wedding. He has also built a nascent following awakened to his politics since Sanders’ run.

Sanders himself has not endorsed Kucinich. “Dennis is his own man,” Sanders said in an interview with journalists from The New York Times, calling him an old friend. “Dennis is a very — what’s the word? — unusual politician.”

But Our Revolution, the Sanders-aligned group, has held up Kucinich as a kind of progressive seer, who pushed ideas like tuition-free college long before they came into wider fashion, rallying behind the storm-the-castle populism familiar to admirers of both men.

In an interview, Kucinich rejected any suggestion that this is a race between two generally analogous progressives on policy. He described himself, unsubtly, as a leader “for a couple of decades” on issues like single-payer health care. And since the Parkland, Florida, massacre in February, he has made gun safety central to his campaign, repeatedly reminding voters of Cordray’s past “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and his refusal to embrace an assault weapons ban.

“If there was indeed truth-in-labeling in elections, Richard Cordray would be running as a Republican,” Kucinich said.

At a recent candidate forum, he affixed an “F” pin to his lapel to signal his own NRA grade. Kucinich’s wife, Elizabeth, three decades younger than her husband and 6 inches taller, mouthed instructions from the front row while filming him. (Two other Democrats — Joe Schiavoni, a state senator, and Bill O’Neill, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice — are also competing to replace Gov. John R. Kasich, a term-limited Republican. The leading Republican candidates are Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, and Mary Taylor, the lieutenant governor.)

Yet Kucinich, more than most Democrats, has run afoul of perceived liberal doctrine himself through the years.

He once opposed abortion rights. He has echoed Trump’s concerns about a “deep state” plot. And he has reported receiving $20,000 for a speech from a group sympathetic to President Bashar Assad of Syria, whom Kucinich has traveled to see. (Kucinich, who has since promised to return the money, said in the interview that he always met with leaders “in the cause of peace” and did not answer directly when asked if Assad was a bad actor.)

In conversations with voters, many framed their preferences as a matter of temperament as much as vision. “He’s not a hell-raiser,” Matt Rado, 34, said of Cordray, for whom he plans to vote anyway. “It would be nice to see some more passion.” Even playful flourishes from Cordray seem intended to evoke a certain hyperdiligence. His campaign literature cites his five “Jeopardy” championships in the 1980s. In a past race, he rewarded dedicated volunteers with DVD copies of his triumph.

He is said to enjoy a good parade — “I’ve always been a parade-ophile,” he allowed — and recently demonstrated his levity to a reporter by pledging to squeeze himself down a children’s slide at a Canton playground after a speech to ironworkers. He kept his word against the advice of a press aide.

“The buttoned-down world of the federal financial regulators is very different,” Cordray said in an interview. “There’s more emotion in this. And it’s been something I’ve had to learn and improve.”

His opponent appears committed to his own instincts and eccentricities, in politics and lesser affairs.

Discussing his campaign over a vegan veggie burger and coconut water — “I like it right out of the coconut. Have you ever had it?” he asked the waitress, who had not — Kucinich set off on a consumption strategy that confounded even his wife, seated beside him: He cut around the bun with a knife and fork to eat only the patty, waited several minutes, then returned to the bun on its own, again with a knife and fork.

“There’s no method,” he confirmed. “Just madness.”

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