Schweiker Takes Charge as Pennsylvania Governor

By: - October 3, 2001 12:00 am

Serving as lieutenant governor can sometimes be a thankless job. Most state residents, polls show, can’t even remember the name of their second in command.

But in Pennsylvania, Mark Schweiker doesn’t have that problem. If he’s not well known now, he will be soon since he drops the ‘lieutenant’ from the title he’s held for nearly seven years Friday (10/5) and replaces the departing Tom Ridge.Ridge is leaving with 15 months left in his last term to take over the newly-created White House Office of Homeland Security.

Ridge’s departure shouldn’t cause any problems for the state. In fact, the transition to the Schweiker administration should be seamless, since he and Ridge have been a close-working Republican team since they were first elected to their executive posts in 1994.

Although they differ on a few significant issues, such as abortion – Schweiker is pro-life while Ridge is pro-choice – they have been pretty much in sync over budget and economic matters, especially tax cuts and incentives to spur development in depressed areas.

Ridge put Schweiker in charge of spearheading the state’s “Weed and Seed” program aimed at bringing jobs to inner city and rural areas. He also headed the administration’s drive to streamline state government operations, an effort generally credited with making offices run more efficiently while saving taxpayers some $500 million.

Schweiker’s advancement will elevate his public profile, no doubt. But regardless, his tenure will likely be remembered in state history as only that of a caretaker governor because he has ruled out a run of his own for the top spot in next year’s election.

“I intend to keep faith with my family…I’ll not be a candidate for anything anytime soon,” he told a state GOP committee meeting last weekend.

His announcement that he plans to spend more time with his wife and three children after 21 years in public service is understandable given the events of Sept. 11, which have forced Americans all over the country to re-examine their priorities. But Schweiker made his decision last October after Ridge’s name was floated by the George W. Bush campaign as a possible vice presidential running mate or defense secretary.

One reason Schweiker won’t run, some party members have speculated, may stem from his job as head of the state’s emergency management commission. As lieutenant governor, one of his most important tasks has been coordinating state relief efforts during times of disaster, a job that few people would want, much less know how to manage, says one aide to Gov. Ridge.

“That’s been one of the hardest things Mark’s had to handle,” this aide said. “He’s done it well, but it’s made him think more about family.”

Ron Ruman, a Schweiker aide, agreed that family concerns are primarily responsible for his decision to leave politics – at least for now.

“He made a commitment last year to his wife and kids (ages 8-to-13) that he would be there for them and watch the kids grow up. And that’s what he intends to do. It’s as simple as that,” Ruman said. He added that while Schweiker was jolted by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon “as much as anyone else,” he had “already decided that family is first.”

As head of emergency management, Schweiker was at the state’s emergency management center on Sept. 11 an hour after the skyjacked jetliners smashed into the trade center’s twin towers. Although Ridge was officially calling the shots on the state’s response to the calamitous events in Manhattan and Washington, Schweiker was already putting emergency teams across the state on alert in case their services were needed.

As it turned out, the emergency teams were needed in New York and at home, where one of the four planes skyjacked by the terrorists that day crashed near the small town of Shanksville, Pa.

Before the plane went down in the countryside, Schweiker had activated a number of counter-terrorism measures passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1996. Working with other state emergency officials, he put police on alert statewide to the potential for trouble and helped coordinate the flow of information between state and federal authorities as events unfolded.

Schweiker 48, was born in Levittown, Pa., and started his career in politics as a township supervisor in 1980. He was elected to the Bucks County Commission eight years later. The local government posts gave him a chance to put his master’s degree in administration and management from Rider University and his business experience with Merrill Lynch and McGraw Hill to the test in the public arena. He and Ridge formed their political partnership in the 1994 campaign and were re-elected again in 1998.

Although viewed as a bit more conservative than Ridge, Schweiker was considered by many Republicans to be a shoo-in to win the 2002 governor’s race if he had not taken himself out of the running. Now they expect a battle for the Republican nomination between conservative Attorney General Mike Fisher and State Treasurer Barbara Hafer, who is considered much more moderate. Schweiker has pledged his support to Fisher.

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