Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tom Ridge Redux?

Although I grew up only a few blocks from where Tom Ridge grew up, and at about the same time, I did not meet the man until he was a new congressman and I was living a thousand miles away, and back visiting my home town.

From that first meeting, I sensed that Ridge was not just an ordinary politician from Erie, Pennsylvania. Although this small industrial city had been settled before 1800, and had a notable share in early American history, it had not ever had a truly nationally-known political figure emerge from it. But Ridge has a distinctive way of filling political vacuums. Growing up in public housing after World War II. he had obtained a scholarship to Harvard, and after graduating, enlisted in the U.S. Army, fought with distinction (and received two bronze stars) in Viet Nam, gone to law school, passed the bar, and had become assistant district attorney in the city of Erie.

By 1982, Erie was passed its industrial prime, Its many plants of tools, metal parts, paper, steel and plastics manufacturing were being bought out, merged or closed, unemployment was high, and its “rust belt” appearance was obvious. Ethnic politics now dominated the city as Polish and Italian working class immigrants filled the voting booths and elected their own to high and low office. Erie politics had been notorious for its corruption and lack of leadership for decades. Bribery charges and indictments were all too frequent. To complicate matters, the city, located in the far northwestern corner of the state, had been largely ignored in the capital city of Harrisburg which understandably paid more attention to the larger population centers of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and central Pennsylvania.

With its heavily blue collar Catholic population and strong labor unions, Erie was a Democratic town. Rural Erie Country was agricultural and Republican, as were the neighboring counties which had composed Erie’s congressional district over the years. Two Republicans and one Democrat had represented the area in previous decades, but none of them had made much of a mark. (one of them, indeed, had been named by a DC publication as the “dumbest member of Congress”). When the Erie seat came open in 1982, it was expected that a Democratic Italian-American with labor support would win the seat.

But it was an Irish-Ruthenian-American Indian Republican prosecutor who beat all comers by a narrow margin that year in his first election, surprising almost everyone. After that first race, Ridge won re-election four times by huge margins, winning the support of Democrats and union members. Then Ridge was elected governor of Pennsylvania (to the surprise of most political observers, and re-elected by the largest margin in state history before being picked as the first Secretary of Homeland Security after September 11 by President George W. Bush. Ridge retired, undefeated in any election (including running for president of his class at Harvard) at the age of 58 in 2005. Three times (in 1996 by Bob Dole, in 2000 by George W. Bush, and in 2008 by John McCain) he had been a finalist in the consideration to be his party’s vice presidential nominee.

Since that time, Ridge has devoted most of his efforts to creating a worldwide consulting firm providing governance and security advice to governments and large companies. For Ridge, his family, and to the political entourage accumulated around him over the years, his days as an elected public official were considered over. He had made quite a mark, becoming Erie’s most prominent and important politician ever. A major environmental center, a college building and Erie’s international airport has already been named after him. His two children were college age, and it seemed time for new directions.

Then last week, Arlen Specter, the 80 year-old, four-term Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, announced he would switch parties back to the Democrats in order to run for a fifth term. Specter, a Philadelphia prosecutor, had switched from the Democrats to the Republicans to run for district attorney, and then became almost a perennial losing candidate for high office in the state until he finally won the senate seat in 1984. Considered a “liberal” Republican, Specter often voted with Democrats in Washington, DC, and had almost been defeated in the GOP primary in 2002 by a conservative congressman. After voting for President Obama’s stimulus bill earlier this year, Specter’s standing among Republican voters plummeted, and polls indicated he would lose a GOP primary next year by a wide margin. Recovering from serious illness, and clearly in his senior years, Specter nevertheless has tried to hold on to his office, and switched parties was self-admittedly a desperate measure.

One vote short of absolute control of the U.S. Senate, President Obama and Democratic senate leaders have welcomed Specter into their fold. But backbenchers in the Senate have chafed at the “deal” made to bring him in, that is, giving him seniority for chairmanships in the 2010 session, leapfrogging him over several veteran Democratic senators. As well, several Pennsylvaniapolitical figures who were planning on running for the senate may not step aside for Specter, and it is unclear yet how the state’s Democratic voters feel about the former Republican.

Notwithstanding these problems, Specter was an early favorite to win re-election against former Congressman Pat Toomey, the Republican who had almost beat him in 2004 and now was the president of the conservative group Club for Growth. Specter was also expected to win a Democratic primary.

But there is one figure in the state who beats Specter, and that’s Tom Ridge. Immediately, state and national Republicans began calling the former governor to see if he would run. A just-published Quinnipiac Poll demonstrates Ridge’s strength in a race against Spector. While Specter beats Toomey by 20 points, he only leads Ridge by 3 points, and is well under 50%. Ridge, who has not run in an election campaign in Pennsylvania for almost 10 years, but is a legendary hard campaigner, could easily pull ahead in this race.

As someone who has known him for almost three decades, my guess would have been that Ridge would say “no,” having already embarked on the next phase of his life. I was surprised to learn after speaking with him, however, that he is seriously considering it.

It turns out that his running is not only important to Republicans in Pennsylvania, but to his party nationally which has suffered huge defeats in the last two elections. Specter was what is called a “RINO” or a Republican In Name Only. Although he is moderately pro-choice on the abortion issue, and irritated some of his GOP colleagues when he sometimes voted for labor when he was in Congress, Ridge is by contrast with Specter a solid economic conservative Republican. (His rapport with blue collar Democrats and independents is a very large plus in this race.) His military, prosecutorial and homeland security background does not fit any “liberal” stereotype. He has not lost any election in the state of Pennsylvania (nor anywhere else). He is 63, but seems to be in his late 40′s. He is, if he wants to be, a political force to be reckoned with.

Most importantly, Tom Ridge, if elected to the U.S. senate in 2010, would help restore his party’s image as the popular conservative centrist party, the place where the GOP, under Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, brought the “party of Lincoln” back to power in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and where, many political observers contend, it must be if it is have a chance to win back the Congress and White House in the decade that looms ahead.

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