Tom Ridge Has the Biggest Job in Washington

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Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge

A little more than a year ago, in the heat of the presidential race, the Bush camp felt compelled to keep Tom Ridge at arm’s length. Today, Pennsylvania’s Governor is taking over the most visible position in America’s war against terror.

Thursday night, addressing the nation and Congress in the aftermath of September 11th’s attacks, President Bush announced he’d nominated Ridge to head the newly formed Office of Homeland Security. Ridge, who is expected to take on the cabinet-level post without any opposition, will oversee government-wide efforts to defend Americans against domestic terrorism. Replacing him as Pennsylvania's governor until the term expires in 2003 will be Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Schweiker.

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This is something of a political renaissance for Ridge, 56, who had cheerfully accepted his fate as perpetual runner-up for vice presidential slots on recent GOP tickets. Last year, despite Bush’s long personal friendship with Ridge, GOP heavyweights advised against bringing the pro-choice Governor onto the ticket. His moderate politics were not going to help the Republicans reclaim the right wing; Ridge was simply too risky a proposition.

Today, of course, the word "risk" carries a different connotation, and Tom Ridge has been pulled from GOP purgatory, hailed by the President as "a true patriot, military veteran and trusted friend," — and now he prepares to take on the most ambitious and difficult task of his political life.

That task: To "lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism, and respond to any attacks that may come," the President announced Thursday night. Ridge will coordinate the efforts of some 40 federal agencies and departments, working alongside a new deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, and controlling a budget estimated at $11 billion.

Congressional leaders and longtime colleagues in Pennsylvania are cheering the President’s nomination. Ridge, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, is both respected and well liked in an area where other politicians have seen their mandates stymied by the state's starkly divided urban and rural ideologies. Before returning to Pennsylvania to win the governorship in 1994, Ridge served in the U.S. House from 1983 to 1995. The Harvard graduate (and lawyer) also served as an assistant district attorney in Erie County.

A handful of lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, had called for the creation of an Office of Homeland Security; Lieberman responded to the President’s announcement with a hearty endorsement. ""A funny and great thing happened on the way to my hearing tomorrow morning on the homeland security agency," Lieberman told the Associated Press after Thursday night’s address. "The president not only endorsed the idea, he apparently created it."