Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Erie, Erie County
Tom Ridge has been a Congressman, Governor, and the first Secretary of Homeland Security.
Born in Munhall, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1945, Tom Ridge was best known for being the governor of Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2001. After receiving a degree from Harvard University, Ridge was drafted into the Vietnam War, and he later received the Bronze Star for Valor. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives before his stint as governor, and he eventually resigned his post in Harrisburg to become the first director of Homeland Security. Today Ridge serves on the boards of various private companies, including Home Depot, and he runs his own security firm, Ridge Global.
Thomas (Tom) Ridge was born in Munhall, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1945. Upon his birth, it was discovered that he had partial hearing loss in his right ear. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a working-class family whose house was part of a veterans' housing project. As a student at Catholic Preparatory High School, he excelled in academics as well as athletics. At the start of high school, he gave up his promising baseball future and joined the school's debate team. During his senior year, he led the team to a state championship. His superior achievements afforded him the opportunity to attend Harvard University on a scholarship, and after four years at the prestigious institution, Ridge gained his degree in American politics in 1967 and went on to enroll at The Dickinson School of Law.
However, after his first year, Ridge was drafted into the Vietnam War. He waived the opportunity to enter officer training school because it held a longer commitment, and he wanted to practice law as soon as possible. This decision led him to take part in direct ground warfare against Vietnam troops. Attaining the rank of staff sergeant, Ridge led a squadron during his time on the ground. In May 1970, he suffered a ruptured appendix, which ultimately removed him from the war and sent him back to the United States. After returning home, Ridge was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor.
Once back in the United States, Ridge returned to Dickinson and completed his degree. He subsequently moved back to Erie and began practicing law. He started with a private practice and later became the assistant district attorney for Erie County. During the same time, Ridge worked local Republican politics in Erie, and eventually became the Erie coordinator for George H.W. Bush's 1980 presidential campaign. In 1982, Ridge entered the political arena and ran for the 21st District's open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ridge overcame the odds, beating Democratic Senator Anthony Andrezeski in a usually Democratic-leaning district. By winning, Ridge became the first Vietnam combat veteran to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Ridge was re-elected six more times. During his career in the House, Ridge gained notoriety as an "independent" Republican, one who was not afraid to go against the wildly popular president, Ronald Reagan, if he did not approve of the legislation on the table. His ability to reach across the aisle on a variety of issues helped him greatly in the next phase of his political career.
After twelve years in the U.S. Congress, Ridge decided that he would run for the governorship of Pennsylvania. In 1994, Ridge defeated Democratic candidate Mark Singel with 45 percent of the vote to Singel's 40 percent. The newly elected governor faced problems early in his term. He went back his pledge to veto any bill that raised the pay of state legislators; he proposed and signed a pay raise into law, an action that was met with fervent civilian disapproval throughout the state. Ridge was also a strong proponent of a voucher system that would allow citizens to send their children to private schools with state funds. However, every attempt he made to pass this legislation was rejected, even by Republican legislatures. He quickly got back on track though, passing welfare reform and a new crime bill that included a "three strikes" statute as well as an accelerated death penalty process. In 1996, Ridge was briefly floated as a possible running mate for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, but Dole eventually decided on Jack Kemp. Ridge was also considered to be on the short-list of vice presidential candidates for George W. Bush in 2000. Pennsylvania had been a swing-state for some time, and the thought was that Ridge may help secure the state for the Republicans if he was on the ticket. Ridge was popular over the course of his governorship: he won re-election in 1998 with 57 percent of the vote. However, his pro-choice stance on abortion caused some in the Republican party to hesitate in naming him their vice presidential candidate, and he was passed over in favor of Dick Cheney.
Tom Ridge's career took a turn after the events of September 11, 2001. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C,. and Pennsylvania, George W. Bush and his administration created the Department of Homeland Security. On October 5, 2001, Ridge resigned as governor to become Homeland Security advisor to President Bush. The passage of the 2002 Homeland Security Act elevated the post to a cabinet-level position, and on January 23, 2003 Ridge was sworn in as the country's first secretary of Homeland Security. As secretary of this new cabinet-level agency, Ridge oversaw more than 180,000 employees and was responsible for the streamlining of a number of critical agencies that had now been brought together to make communication among these agencies more efficient. Also, Ridge oversaw the implementation of the controversial color-coded advisory system. On February 1, 2005, Ridge stepped down from the post, receiving bi-partisan praise for his work. U.S. House Representative Jane Harman, who sits on the House's Committee on Intelligence, noted that Ridge had "made real progress under difficult circumstances," according to a 2004 CNN report about Ridge's resignation. Ridge cited personal and family reasons for his decision.
He remained close to politics. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he served as a senior aide for his long-time friend and Republican candidate, John McCain. A few years later, in 2010, Ridge published his first memoir, The Test of Our Times with Lary Bloom. Today, Tom Ridge is highly active in the private sector. He serves on the board of directors for Home Depot and The Hershey Company, and serves as a senior advisor to Deloitte, an auditing firm. He also remains president and CEO of his own security consulting firm, Ridge Global.
Tom Ridge lives with his wife, Michele, to whom he has been married since 1979. Together they have two adopted children, Lesley and Tommy.
The Test of Our Times. (With Lary Bloom) New York: St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne, 2010.