Bland ambition

GOP vice presidential front-runner Tom Ridge ruled Pennsylvania during a time of unprecedented prosperity. His biggest accomplishment? Tom Ridge.

Published May 15, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Everyone loves Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. Moderate. Affable. Handsome. Pleasant. Catholic, but pro-choice. Reaches across party lines. By all accounts a nice guy. Almost everyone -- except for ardent pro-lifers -- agrees Tom Ridge would make just the perfect vice-presidential nominee for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"I have a great deal of respect for Tom Ridge," says Ed Rendell, former two-term mayor of Philadelphia and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "We had a good working relationship and I think he's a good, strong leader, though I disagreed with him on some social policies.

"But I think he'd be an excellent candidate; the Republicans would be hard-pressed to find a better one."

On April 26, Bush named Dick Cheney, former defense secretary in the Bush White House, to write up the short list of potential No. 2s. Now that the individuals who would seem to actually attract swing voters -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell -- have removed themselves from consideration, the list seems to be broadening to include Elizabeth Dole, New York Gov. George Pataki, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and several other serious contenders.

But Ridge seems to be at the top, at least as far as pundits and various political observers have it. "I think he's No. 1 on the short list," says William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, who has had several conversations with "people reasonably close to Bush" about who Bush will pick as his nominee for vice president. "I think Bush would like to pick Ridge, but I think they're worried about a pro-life revolt and giving [the issue] to [Pat] Buchanan."

But his abortion stance aside, there are plenty in Pennsylvania right now grumbling about other, more substantial reasons the rest of the country should view Ridge warily. Predictably, many of these individuals are Democratic officials, and Ridge's team sees clear partisan reasons for this campaign. "If Tom Ridge is on the ticket, the Democrats in Harrisburg know they have no chance of winning back the Statehouse," says Ridge spokesman Tim Reeves. "That's what this is about."

They're not all Democrats, though. State Rep. John Lawless -- a pro-life conservative Republican from outside Philadelphia -- notes that "we've had six years of a great economy. I mean, I'm not ready to be governor, but I probably could have run the state, too. He's had a great ride on the economy, all these guys have.

"Who isn't a good governor today?" Lawless says. "Who isn't a good president today?"

He's received great press as a member of Bush's short-list for veep, but the question -- raised by naysayers and also his own, at best, modest record during a period of unparalleled prosperity in his state -- is whether the idea of Tom Ridge may be better than the reality.

So who is Tom Ridge, really? A perfect GOP V.P., or just a common hack with good P.R. and great luck?

Governor of a populous, electoral-rich, rust-belt state, Ridge was also on the short list for V.P. in 1996 for Bob Dole, and it's no wonder. In addition to having a pleasing mien, Ridge embodies, in the estimation of Philadelphia Daily News political scribe John Baer, "the great American story."

Born with impaired hearing in a Pittsburgh steel town, Ridge was raised in veterans' public housing by a mother and a father working two jobs, after which he earned a scholarship to Harvard. After his first year of law school, he was drafted into the Army. In Vietnam, Ridge served as an infantry staff sergeant and was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Combat Infantry Badge.

After finishing his law degree in 1972, Ridge served as an assistant district attorney in Erie County, and won election to the U.S. House in 1982 from a swing district, where he was a voice of moderation. He campaigned for governor in 1994 on a typical GOP gubernatorial platform: school choice, welfare reform, privatization, cutting taxes, cleaning up the state capital, reforming workers compensation and tough crime rhetoric.

It worked, and he won by 3 percentage points.

He became popular, but not wildly so, because his approval rating seems rooted in little more than his pleasant nature. "It's because of way he conducts himself," says Baer. "He's one of those rare politicians that is seemingly unflappable. Plus, he's a genuinely nice guy."

"I don't know that people are wildly enthusiastic about Ridge," says Pennsylvania political observer Terry Madonna of Millersville State University, who nonetheless gives Ridge's tenure positive marks.

Even predictably negative foes aren't exactly damning. "I'd give him about a C-minus," says State Rep. Mike Veon, Democratic whip. "He gets good marks for producing, like P.T. Barnum, 'the greatest show on earth.' But like any circus act, it's a lot of smoke and mirrors."

And, according to Lawless, Ridge is a "nice guy" and a "bright man" who is simply too "corporate-driven."

Even a top Pennsylvania House Democratic aide has little nasty to say about Ridge. He isn't such a bad guy, the staffer says, it's just that "his whole tenure has been a blown opportunity," assessed the aide. "He's got a pretty amazing public relations machine out there, and he is a well-liked guy, but he hasn't done much."

The case should not be overstated -- few argue that Ridge is evil, or even incompetent.

Certainly, in comparison with typical Harrisburg fare, Ridge comes out smelling like a rose. "What we've been used to is damage," says Baer. "And what Ridge has been able to do is sort of prevent any damage. The state seems to be OK."

This has helped Ridge in more direct comparisons -- the electoral kind. His opponents in 1994 and 1998 were ludicrous Democratic hacks; the choice of Ridge was a difficult one to condemn. Generally, critics allow, he's a nice guy and completely benign personally.

But benign is not, of course, the same thing as good.

Ridge spokesman Tim Reeves argues that since January 1995, more than 250,000 new jobs have come into the state, which he says is largely due to Ridge's ability to build a better business climate by slashing around $4 billion in business taxes. "You can't be for jobs and against business," Reeves says, "and you can't be for business and against competitive business taxes."

But objective observers say that Ridge overstates his own case. "If the economy were bad, his approval ratings would be substantially lower," says Madonna, who watches poll numbers like others watch the stock market. "He has had a set of fortuitous circumstances, the likes of which have never before been seen in Pennsylvania politics. He's the first governor in modern Pennsylvania history to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars in budget surpluses."

Ridge has also benefited from having had a GOP-controlled state Senate and General Assembly run by, in Madonna's words, "an extraordinarily compliant group of legislators."

It's an enviable position for a governor. In a similar situation, Michigan's Republican Gov. John Engler used his resultant bully pulpit to push through a controversial school voucher program. Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson enacted a comprehensive welfare-to-work package. New York's George Pataki even went out on a limb and embraced a number of gun-safety measures, incurring the wrath of the National Rifle Association, and worked closely with the Democrat-controlled Legislature on health care.

And what's Tom Ridge done in the same situation? As Ridge spokesman Reeves -- a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter turned self-described "hopeless sycophant" -- correctly states, "What he's done is exactly what he said he would do. Whether or not you agree with the results, no one's argument should be that they're surprised."

Ridge's first move, convening a special session on crime, resulted in three dozen bills being passed, including increased penalties for criminals -- three strikes, Megan's Law, tougher punishment for juvenile offenders -- as well as the creation of a Victim's Advocate office.

Pennsylvania business growth had been hobbled for years by abuse of the ludicrously strong union state workers compensation laws, and he set about reforming that as well. And, of course, he tackled welfare reform.

But Ridge's No. 1 priority has always been bringing more jobs to the state by producing a more compliant atmosphere for business. Job growth is up, unemployment is down, spokesman Reeves argues, so what are all these Democrats complaining about?

He's right, in a way. Harrisburg Democrats, not surprisingly, do tend to seize on the ugliest statistics about the state, projectile-vomiting on Ridge's glossy sheen. And what they seize on is this: The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Pennsylvania's job growth staggered last year -- the state ranks 47th nationally, lagging significantly behind each of its neighboring states. (New York is 20th, Maryland at 17th, Delaware at 9th, New Jersey at 26th, Ohio at 38th, and even lowly West Virginia, usually good for a laugh, edges by in 43rd). From 1998-99, Democrats fume, the Keystone State added only 5,900 jobs.

"Many Pennsylvanians who were previously unable to find work have moved," slams Democratic State Sen. Vince Fumo, invoking the state's notorious brain-drain and population loss, which is expected to lead to the loss of two congressional seats after federal redistricting based on the 2000 census. "Ridge administration policies ... focused too narrowly on tax cuts geared only toward big business," Fumo has said. "Large corporations have continued their trend toward downsizing while small businesses and high-tech start-up companies who are a major source of new job creation have not received broad-based tax relief."

That seems something of a stretch. On the whole, Pennsylvania's economy is chugging along just fine, and to damn Ridge with one minor glitch of a statistic -- while withholding credit for Ridge's six previous years of bravura performances, at least according to the Bureau of Labor statistics -- is partisanship at its worst. When Ridge took office, Pennsylvania ranked 45th among the states in job growth; by 1998 Pennsylvania ranked 16. And, Reeves claims, the state's massive population loss is part of a three-decade-long trend.

"It's amazing to us when they cite" the new Bureau of Labor Statistics figure, Reeves says. "Our state is so partisan," he says, repeating a Rutgers University study that ranked Pennsylvania as having one of the most harshly partisan state capitals in the nation.

"It's amazing to us that people are willing to tear down Pennsylvania to people like you to take a shot at Governor Ridge," Reeves says. "I mean, we're not naive; we play hard. But our unemployment rate is lower than the national average and our job growth is related to that. We have almost statistical full employment."

The main shot that Democrats and some Republicans, like Lawless, take at Ridge, however, is that he's worked a little too hard on behalf of business; they point often at the $400 million worth of bonds Ridge lobbied for to build four new stadiums, two in Philadelphia and two in Pittsburgh. Democrat Rendell says all four, but particularly the ones in Pittsburgh, were crucial to the cities' economies to attract jobs and tourism.

Republican Lawless, though, wonders why middle-class taxpayers are saddled with paying for bonds that will only help corporations that rent out skyboxes at the stadiums. Middle-class taxpayers "can't afford tickets to the games anyway, or the $5 hotdogs or whatever," he says. "Why are we paying that bond money so Tom Ridge can give millionaires and billionaires playgrounds? Why not put that into reducing property taxes or to seniors to pay for their prescription drugs?"

Lawless has similar criticism for the $430 million deal Ridge worked out with a Norweigan company, Kvaerner ASA, that promised to build a private shipyard in Philadelphia. After fumbling the original deal with German company Meyer Werft, (a Philadelphia Business Journal op-ed called it "Ridge's Amateur Hour") Ridge worked hard for a worse deal with Kvaerner; that project fell through and eventually was decried on a July 1999 NBC Nightly News program, "The Fleecing of America," for costing taxpayers $606,000 per job in an industry almost wiped out in this country due to cheap overseas labor.

Lawless' rant, however, develops into a deeper critique when he discusses how the "corporate-driven" Ridge ended up securing the votes in the General Assembly for his various corporation-coddling projects.

To understand Lawless' story, you have to understand that Harrisburg is one of the sleaziest state capitals in the country. Pennsylvania campaign-finance laws are among the flimsiest, and the state's spirit of democracy has seen better days. Pennsylvania has more uncontested state legislative elections than most any other comparably sized state, with almost 90 percent of Statehouse members running unopposed in primaries and 38 percent running unopposed in the general election. Voter turnout is significantly down.

Ridge promised to clean up the capitol when he ran for governor in 1994, saying he had "one message -- change Harrisburg honestly." He decried pay raises for the Legislature and, significantly, railed against "legislative initiative grants." The grants, nicknamed "WAMs," for "walking-around money," were given to General Assembly members for projects in their districts, doled out by legislative leaders to good soldiers as they campaigned for reelection. WAMs were Pennsylvania sleaze at its greasiest: secretive, stinking of cronyism, far removed from the very people whose cash was being spent.

"WAMs were a legal slush fund through which legislative leaders would buy off votes," says Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause.

Assessing the choice between Ridge and Lt. Gov Singel, the Allentown Morning Call made it pretty clear what it thought of Harrisburg. "Given the choice between a candidate steeped in Harrisburg's political culture and one nurtured outside it, take the outsider," the paper wrote in its 1994 endorsement of Ridge.

When a newspaper considers the guy from Washington, D.C., to be the obvious "clean" candidate, you know something's rotten in the state of Keystone.

Ridge changed his tune on the pay raise for state legislators pretty quick, soon signing into law an 18 percent pay raise for the General Assembly and state Senate.

"The governor was initially opposed to that," Reeves acknowledges. "The General Assembly made it very clear in very short order how important it was to them, and what an impediment it would be to any business being done if he didn't sign off on it. So he did what he believed was the right thing for him to do at time for Pennsylvania. It wasn't something that he enjoyed."

Far more troubling: After Ridge was elected, he soon replaced WAMs with "Community Revitalization Program" grants, or CRPs, to be administered by ... guess who?

"He basically took over the WAMs system through CRP grants," says Common Cause's Kauffman. "From what we've been told by some grant administrators, basically what Ridge does is he reserves certain amounts of the grant money to use to buy votes on legislative initiatives. And it's all technically legal."

Auditor General Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, studied the CRP program early on and found that $15 million had been given in grants without "any formal or written criteria."

"Ridge said he was going to do away with WAMs, but all he did really was escalate them, as it turns out," says Republican Lawless. "I sat in a meeting during Ridge's first term, and I will never forget it. One representative said, 'Governor, what about you taking away WAMs?' And at this point it was clear that WAMs weren't going away, they were just gonna be completely under his control.

"So the representative said, 'What about this monument in Erie?' that Ridge was having built. And I'll never forget it as long as I live, Ridge said, 'You know what, George, you're right. WAMs are gone.' And the representative said, 'Well? What about that?' And Ridge looked at him and said, 'Well, when you're governor, you can get WAMs.' And that's how he gets his votes when he needs them."

Just last week, Lawless says, when Ridge was pushing forward an education bill that would take away local control from failing schools, Ridge pulled out the old CRP paycheck. "There's a representative who said he was against it, against it, against it. Then he voted for it. And I said, 'Why? I thought you were against it!' And he said, 'I am against it. But I can't turn down the money they offered me.' He buys their votes."

"Well," Lawless catches himself, "'buy' is a bad word. Let's say he negotiates them very well with public funds."

Spokesman Reeves argues that there's nothing hypocritical in Ridge's stand. "Look back to what he said during the campaign," Reeves says. "He said, 'We've got to take it out from the closet and get it out for everybody to see.' Before, with the WAM program, you no idea how much money was in the state budget for these projects. Now you can see exactly how much money is going into it."

But since 1996, CRP grants have amounted to more than $150 million in various project payoffs -- the merit selection process for all of them completely secret.

To make matters worse, Ridge has even spent state tax dollars to keep the CRP grant process secret. Last September, the Tribune-Review and WPXI-TV, both of western Pennsylvania, have sued the Ridge administration to open up the CRP grant-giving process to the light of day.

Reeves says it's all just a matter of timing. "It's the line between public scrutiny of an internal deliberative process and public scrutiny of every expenditure of money," he says. "In this state, public-interest law is focused on the moment of the expenditure of the money." One wonders how that argument would fly with Tim Reeves back when he was a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Money's a big thing for Ridge, and not just in terms of giving it to compliant legislators. He raised more in preparation for his 1998 reelection campaign than anyone in state history -- $15 million, to his Democratic opponent's $500,000. Like Bush's presidential "Pioneers," Ridge formed a special "Governor's Club" of individuals who could raise $25,000 for him. He later former a similar group called his "Leadership Circle."

"Look at the kind of money he raises," says Lawless. "You think they do that because they like him? People don't put that money up for no reason at all."

Often, it seems as though their reasons are pretty clear:

  • Ridge supporter C. Alan Walker and his father Ray gave more than $90,000 to Ridge; they were the primary landowners in a $4.3 million sale of property to the state National Guard for an M-1 tank training center in December 1999. This sale went through, despite the fact that, according to the York Dispatch, a separate landowner with a cheaper offer received a letter from a National Guard colonel saying, "Of all the properties that we have looked at, this area offers the best training area for our soldiers and equipment." When asked about the unseemly appearance, Reeves told the Hazleton Standard-Speaker, "It's frustrating to me to have to defend allegations that have no evidence behind them."

  • Patricia K. Poprik, then treasurer of the state GOP, and her husband, gave Ridge more than $16,000 by 1995, when her bond firm, First American, was the only one out of five competing firms to get a portion of $50 million in housing bond work from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. "It only looks that way to people that are looking at it that way," Poprik told the Philadelphia Daily News when asked the obvious question.

  • Six of the 10 individuals Ridge named in April 1995 to a judicial advisory panel that recommends nominees for Philadelphia-area judgeships had given Ridge's 1994 campaign more than $70,000, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This illustrious panel -- which Ridge formed to replace a bipartisan commission three decades old -- included David Simon, senior V.P. for U.S. Healthcare, who donated $37,000. "The fact is that people who are accomplished in the professional world are often politically active," Reeves told the Inquirer.

  • A 1998 study by the Philadelphia Inquirer noted rampant manifestations of this convergence of "accomplished" professionals and "politically active" Ridge supporters. Ridge appointed approximately 300 contributors to state boards and commissions; almost half gave Ridge $1,000 or more. One hundred or so firms that gave Ridge $5,000 or more found themselves with $1.5 billion in state contracts. More than 90 percent of the law firms given $7.8 million in no-bid bond work by the Ridge administration were firms that had given cash to Ridge.

    Lawless, who liked McCain during the GOP primaries, says that he was incensed when he heard that McCain, during last Tuesday's much hyped summit with Bush, "indicated that Tom Ridge would make a good vice president. I would love to be able to talk to John McCain and say, 'Are you crazy?! Your biggest issue is campaign finance reform; this guy stands for everything you're against ! You're saying that's who you think would make a good vice president?!' It's hypocritical."

    Then there was his welfare program. In 1995, Ridge promised that the last-gasp safety nets would never be taken; but he cut them anyway. In a budget in which he proposed $60 million in corporate tax cuts, Ridge moved to remove 220,000 Pennsylvanians -- including 140,000 of the working poor -- from Medicaid unless they went to work. Despite Ridge's reputation for putting a smiley face on GOP policies, he was hammered for being draconian, a smooth Newt.

    Hospitals, social workers, church groups, the cities of Philadelphia
    and Pittsburgh and others protested Ridge's proposed cuts, but they
    went through regardless. A few years later, after then-Mayor Rendell
    took out an ad in The Philadelphia Inquirer and the
    Philadelphia Daily News decrying further cuts as part of Ridge's
    welfare reform as resulting in "human and fiscal catastrophe" --
    forcing families to become "penniless" and cities and localities to
    pick up the slack -- the normally spendthrift Ridge dipped into the
    till of the Department of Welfare's budget, spending $9,000 of state
    money to take out a counter-ad, calling Rendell's criticisms
    "alarmist and misleading."

    "The welfare reform he enacted wasn't innovative, like [Republican Gov.] Tommy Thompson has done in Wisconsin," Democrat Whip Veon says. "Tommy Thompson has done welfare reform the right way, and the harder way. By spending more money on welfare today" -- by helping welfare recipients with transportation, health care, and child care -- "in the long run, in my opinion, Wisconsin will have more of those welfare clients actually in real jobs. Here, welfare reform essentially consisted of reducing Medicaid rolls by cutting people off Medicaid."

    Reeves pooh-poohs "the horror stories of what we were told would happen to Pennsylvania men and women if this were passed. If that were true, we'd be hearing from them." Nonetheless, this year -- with money from the tobacco industry lawsuit settlement -- Ridge proposed re-enrolling around 110,000 Pennsylvania working poor onto Medicaid, though Reeves says the move was unrelated to his welfare reform.

    The recession of the early 1990s hit the state hard, Reeves points out, and Ridge's predecessor, then-Gov. Bob Casey, pushed forward "a $1 billion tax increase that profoundly exacerbated recession. So Tom Ridge ran with an economic agenda of tax cuts and spending restraint. For the past six years we've reduced the rate of spending, which is significant because every year we've also cut taxes. When we came into office, there was only $66 million in the 'rainy day' fund; now it's $1.1 billion. So we will be able to get through the next recession without a tax increase."

    Rendell says he'd like to see at least some of the money go toward funding some of the state's poorer school districts, around two dozen of which are suing the state due to inadequate funding. (Education Week just ranked Pennsylvania at the bottom of states with equitable funding among richer and poorer school districts.)

    While Ridge has cut state spending, townships and boroughs have been forced to pick up the slack. Property taxes have gone up in the richer areas; in the poorer ones, schools have gone without.

    "It's absolutely apparent to everyone that the state has not fulfilled its obligation to adequately fund education," Rendell says. "The under-funding gap is so significant! But the governor's response -- like all the Republicans -- is 'vouchers vouchers vouchers.'"

    Ridge has pushed for vouchers at least three times; each time it has failed. Last June -- the third time -- he pulled out all the stops and pushed for a voucher bill in a legislative negotiation that went on almost entirely behind closed doors -- and without an actual bill for the legislators to even look at.

    "It's a process this administration inherited," Ridge said to reporters.

    There are any number of solid arguments in favor of school vouchers, but Ridge didn't lean on the power of his ideas, or the goodwill he had built with anything other than the deal-making endemic to the Harrisburg swamp. It's a superficial reservoir of goodwill, and it failed.

    Last week, on the other hand, Ridge's education bill -- which would give the state control over failing school districts -- did pass.

    As with everything with Ridge, the record is pretty mixed. He's been tough on the poor, yet he's also worked to raise the level at which taxes kick in for low-income families. He's been lauded for supporting plenty of environmental initiatives, and yet according to a recent study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Pennsylvania ranks second worst in the nation in toxic dumping. Last year he made tens of thousands ineligible for a child-care subsidy, but after what Rendell calls a "ruckus," Ridge reversed himself and restored a number of individuals to the list.

    It seems clear that throughout his entire six years as governor the project Ridge has been most committed to -- and most successful in promoting -- is, well, Ridge. "What Ridge has accomplished most is sort of to have maintained himself," says Baer.

    More recently, amid Election-year-criticism that he hasn't done anything to help Pennsylvania's skyrocketing and onerous property taxes, he dreamed up a plan to mail a $100 check to each and every Keystone stater who pays the tax. The check is due to arrive in October -- two weeks or so before Election Day.

    If he pulls it off, it could be an impressive stunt. And it might be just the kind of walking-around money that could benefit not just him, but George W. Bush, too.

  • By Jake Tapper

    Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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