Thomas Joseph Ridge was born on August 26, 1945, in Munhall, Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh, to Tom and Laura Sudimak Ridge, a working class family who lived in veterans’-assisted public housing. He grew up in Erie where he attended St. Andrew’s School and graduated from Cathedral Preparatory School. He earned an academic scholarship to Harvard and graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in government studies in 1967. After his first year at Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Ridge was drafted into the United States Army where he served as an infantry staff sergeant in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970. He earned the Bronze Star for Valor, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Combat Infantry Badge. Upon his return from Vietnam, he completed his law studies at Dickinson in 1972 and and then married the former Michele Moore (1947–), a native of Erie, with whom they raised two children, Lesley and Tommy. Mrs. Ridge served as executive director of the Erie County Library System prior to becoming Pennsylvania’s first lady and became very visible and active during and following her husband's term of office. She has advocated for the prevention of violence and alcohol abuse by and against youth, breast cancer and cervical cancer awareness and support, and family literacy.
Following law school, Ridge entered private practice and, later, served as an assistant district attorney in Erie County. In 1982, he was elected by a narrow margin to the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania’s 21st District. His strong views on fighting crime and background in the state district attorney’s office had wide voter appeal, but his more moderate approach to other issues gained enough favor to overcome a Democratic voter advantage in northwestern Pennsylvania. He was reelected to five congressional terms.
As a member of the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, Ridge secured enactment of legislation to allow children fathered by American servicemen in Southeast Asia to immigrate to the United States. He also traveled to Vietnam to conduct negotiations involving the full accounting of American prisoners of war (POWs) and missing in action (MIAs).
Tom Ridge ran for governor in 1994 and defeated Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, with 1,627,976 votes to Singel’s 1,430,099 votes. Third party candidates in 1994 included Peg Luksik of the Constitutional Party who secured 460,269 votes; Patrick Fallon of the Libertarian Party with 33,602, and; Timothy Halloway of the Patriot Party who obtained 33,235 votes. Ridge was re-elected in 1998 with a 57 percent majority defeating Democratic State Representative Ivan Itkin of Allegheny County.
In 1995, Ridge called the General Assembly of Pennysylvania into special session to consider a series of crime-fighting measures that had been a hallmark of his gubernatorial campaign. As a result of the session, Ridge signed more than forty new anti-crime laws mandating restitution to crime victims, creating a state-level crime victim’s advocate office, establishing a DNA database for monitoring sex offenders, a “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders—generally meaning that three offenses of the same crime results in manadatory punishment—and increased penalties for murder convictions. Ridge also accelerated the pace of state issuance for execution death warrants and, despite criticism from anti-death penalty advocates, executions were resumed by the Commonwealth for the first time since 1962.
Fiscal prudence marked the Ridge Administration. The Commonwealth’s budget grew by two to three percent per fiscal year during most of Ridge’s tenure. During his first year in office, taxes were reduced by nearly $300 million. Over his tenure as governor, combined tax reductions totaled more than two billion dollars. A prosperous national economy during most of the 1990s yielded the Commonwealth enhanced tax revenues and enabled Governor Ridge to grow Pennsylvania's “Rainy Day” Fund balance to more than one billion dollars to be utilized in the event of an economic downturn or recession.
Governor Ridge also signed legislation to revise the Commonwealth’s economic development programs by combining the Departments of Community Affairs and Commerce into a newly created Department of Community and Economic Development. Similarly, the “Keystone Opportunity Zone” program was implemented to provide tax incentives to businesses to locate in some of the Commonwealth’s most severely distressed communities. International trade missions were led by Governor Ridge to promote commerce between Pennsylvania and such nations or regions as Canada, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, and South Africa.
Other initiatives included legislation permitting competition among electric utilities; enhanced federal and state support for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) launched in 1992; a land recycling program to encourage clean-up and reuse of industrial sites; and a welfare-reform initiative requiring able-bodied recipients to work or attend educational programs. Despite opposition from workers and organized labor, Ridge implemented substantial revisions to workers’ compensation insurance. He also separated the Commonwealth’s environmental regulatory and conservation programs into two new agencies—the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
In one of his most controversial initiatives, Ridge gained ground in allowing charter schools in Pennsylvania and in establishing alternate schools for disruptive students. He also launched new academic standards for Pennsylvania’s school-age population. The General Assembly, however, disagreed with his push for school vouchers to commit tax money to subsidize parents who send their children to private schools. Additionally, in an era of remarkable advancements in computer technology, Ridge oversaw unprecedented growth in citizen access to state government with the evolution of the Internet. From renewing drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations, to viewing historical documents and library catalogs, state government “on-line” Internet services for citizens grew exponentially during the 1990s.
In 2000, Ridge was rumored to be a potential vice presidential running mate with George W. Bush. Ridge’s more moderate views, such as support of a woman's right-to-choose with regard to abortion and opposition to some proposed national missile defense programs, caused conservative Republicans to successfully oppose his selection. Though Ridge remained a prominent Republican, Pennsylvania voted decidedly for Democrat Albert Gore Jr. in the closely contested, but unsuccessful, 2000 presidential election.
On September 11, 2001, after terrorists hijacked and crashed four commercial airliners and their passengers into each of two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, and, falling short of its target in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people in all. It was considered to be the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor that prompted the U.S. to enter World War II. Among the many responses of the federal government in a campaign to execute a "war on terror," on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that Governor Ridge would become the director of a new U.S. Office of Homeland Security. On October 5, Ridge officially resigned the governorship to prepare for his new role with the federal government. On January 22, 2003, the U.S. Senate confirmed the elevation of Homeland Security to a full presidential cabinet level. Two days later, Ridge became the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and served in that capacity until February 1, 2005. Part of the duties of the department is to identify and prevent attacks on the United States and on related interests. Ridge was succeeded as governor by his Lieutenant Governor, Mark S. Schweiker to serve out the remainder of his term.
In 2005, Ridge, having decided to "give personal and family matters a higher priority," redirected his career in the private sector in various positions as a consultant, board member, or advisor for several private and public corporations. His expertise in economics is considered to be one of his primary areas of importance for various companies. Two exceptions for a return to public service occurred in 2007 when he served on a review panel that investigated the mass murders that occurred in April 2007 on the campus of Virginia Tech University. He also served as a senior aide during the unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign for Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. As of 2009, public and media speculation persists as to possible future political aspirations for the former governor.