Ridge Takes On His Biggest Battle Atop Homeland Agency

W By Vicki Kemper and Richard T. Cooper

wASHINGTON – Of all the occupations that fill out Tom Ridge’s resume – prosecutor, congressman and governor of Pennsylvania among them – perhaps none more qualifies him to become America’s first secretary of Homeland Security than this: combat veteran.

Ever since President Bush proposed creating the department, an amalgam of 22 agencies and their 170,000 employees, old political hands have warned of a clash of bureaucratic cultures and intergovernmental turf wars.

But Monday, when Bush signs the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, the strapping 6-foot-3 Ridge will be right there with him as his choice for secretary.

Ridge, 57, brings more to the job – regularly described as requiring an encyclopedic mind and a biblical personality – than his Bronze Star, which he earned for valor in combat in the Vietnam War. He also has 13 months of experience as the first director of the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Not that this always was considered an asset. In his first months in the ill-defined, some said toothless, position, Ridge collected more bruises than medals.

Now, however, the same administration officials who long were rumored to have been considering practically everyone but Ridge say he is battle-tested and fully qualified for the post, which requires Senate confirmation.

Ridge has lived through a lot since he was sworn in as Bush’s homeland security adviser on Oct. 8 of last year – a day after the United States began bombing Afghanistan and three days after the first of what would be five anthrax-related deaths. But many question how much safer the country is now, and whether the new department – which includes neither the FBI nor the CIA – can succeed in overcoming the intelligence failures that preceded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Ridge’s aides, however, express confidence in the government’s ability to protect Americans. They point to the response to last month’s audiotape statements from al-Qaida leaders, which warned vaguely of renewed attacks.

The FBI and CIA warned that the likelihood of new terrorist attacks had risen. But Ridge, arguing that warnings were of no value if they did not influence what people did, took control of the threat advisory system and established new guidelines for action, his staff said.

“He pulled all the agencies together and said the time for issuing warnings without actions was over,” said Gordon Johndroe, Homeland Security spokesman.

Just because threat information was not specific enough to raise the alert status did not mean preparations didn’t need to be made, Ridge told officials from various agencies.

So he set up and ran meetings and conference calls between top government officials and operators of water treatment plants, energy facilities, nuclear and chemical plants and other potential targets to discuss immediate steps they should take to protect their facilities.

While no one, including Ridge, believes that launching the massive Cabinet agency will be easy, the evidence suggests he will bring significant assets to the job. His open, elbows-in style, his 12 years in the House and his experience as a two-term governor coupled with the strong support he’s won from state and local officials could all be sources of strength.

On the other hand, Ridge has never tackled a job so complicated. Many in Congress, where some Democrats still are smarting from their monthslong fight with Bush over civil-service protection for department employees, are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“I like him. I respect him,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., said.

Paul C. Light, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Service in Washington – who jokes that only Moses could handle the job – also said that Ridge “has the toughness and the ability to do the job.”

For Thomas Joseph Ridge, who was born Aug. 26, 1945, determination was part of survival. His father struggled to support a growing family on a salesman’s pay. When Ridge was born, his parents lived in public housing.

Although the family eventually owned a small house, Ridge grew up knowing his father had sacrificed his own hopes of becoming a lawyer for the sake of his children.

Ridge attended Catholic schools, had a paper route – it reportedly took him three hours to make his collections because he spent so much time visiting with the customers – and became a champion debater.

From his mother, Ridge picked up a combative streak. When schoolboy Ridge confessed to tearing his pants in a fight with a kid who jeered at his religion, Ridge’s mother said, “That’s fine with me. Go back and swing at him again.”

Ridge attended Harvard University on a scholarship, graduated with honors and entered Pennsylvania State University’s law school. But he was soon drafted into the Army.

He came home from the Vietnam War with ears damaged by the noise of artillery shells and needed a hearing aid. He finished law school, spent 10 years in private practice and won a seat in Congress.

If his family shaped his personality and values, his dozen years in Congress gave Ridge the first experience that bears directly on the challenges waiting at the Homeland Security Department. Like most House members, he learned to dig into a subject and work for compromises among entrenched interests.

“I think Ridge’s years in the House are very much of a plus,” Indiana University political scientist Charles R. Wise said. “He understands what Congress can do, or refrain from doing, to make the secretary’s job easier, or make it anywhere from difficult to impossible.”

Rep. James A. Leach, R-Iowa, who chaired the House Banking Committee when Ridge was a member, says Ridge had a knack for getting cooperation by being, above all, a straight-shooter. “He is an exceptionally decent guy,” Leach said. “I don’t know anyone that people would like more to give the benefit of the doubt to.”

The new secretary also will have to win the trust of the transferred agencies and create an environment that encourages openness, creativity and a readiness to leapfrog the bureaucratic swamps.

Ridge has been an effective advocate for his mission. Early on, Ridge formed a strategic alliance with the Office of Management and Budget, which had retained its traditional budgetary control over the agencies with homeland-security functions.

OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels said that he and Ridge “put together a little SWAT team.” Ridge gathered information, negotiated with the relevant federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, and decided what should be done. Daniels’ staff arranged the budgeting details to make it happen.

When several governors threatened to demobilize National Guard troops at airports for lack of money, Ridge “cut through the legal and funding issues to get these people paid for out of federal dollars,” Daniels said.

Above all, the new secretary of Homeland Security must demonstrate that the president is behind him.

That will be crucial in dealing with congressional satraps, said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. To persuade committee chairmen and others to yield turf, the secretary must present this as “an overriding national security mandate which has the support of the president.”

Ridge appears to have no problem there. His friendship with the Bush family dates to his political service to Bush’s father.