Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge met privately with Republican pollsters twice in a 10-day span last spring as he embarked on more than a dozen trips to presidential battleground states.
Ridge’s get-togethers with Republican strategists Frank Luntz and Bill McInturff during a period the secretary was saying his agency was playing no role in Bush’s re-election campaign were revealed in daily appointment calendars obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
“We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,” Ridge told reporters during the election season.
His aides resisted releasing the calendars for over a year, finally providing them to the AP three days after Ridge left office this month.
Homeland Security officials said the meeting with Luntz at department headquarters was aimed at improving public communication of the department’s message, particularly on TV. Ridge declined an interview with the AP about the calendars, referring questions to former aides.
“We did not discuss homeland security in a presidential campaign context,” said Susan Neely, a former assistant homeland security secretary who attended the May 17 session with Luntz and Ridge. “We asked him his impression of how well we were explaining whatever the issues were of the day. There was no follow-up meeting.”
Neely said the discussion took place after Ridge and Luntz ran into each other and the homeland security secretary expressed an interest in hearing Luntz’s assessment.
McInturff, who has done the polling for all of Ridge’s campaigns for Congress and Pennsylvania governor, said the two meet every few months to “shoot the breeze.”
Homeland security officials said the May 26 conversation between Ridge and McInturff was personal and the secretary did not discuss any homeland security-related issues.
“When you’ve got Secret Service protection it’s a heck of a lot easier for me to meet the secretary of a major agency at the agency than it is for him to come to Old Town and have lunch,” McInturff said. Old Town is a neighborhood in Alexandria, Va., home of McInturff’s company, Public Opinion Strategies.
“I have zero connection with anyone doing business with homeland security, zero connection with the Bush campaign,” McInturff said.
Ridge’s meetings with the pollsters occurred just before the first of 16 trips, from late May to late October, to 10 states important to the president’s re-election campaign. During the same period, Ridge made 20 appearances in nine uncontested states.
Four days after the meeting with Luntz, Ridge went to Missouri for appearances in Kansas City and St. Louis. In the ensuing five months, he averaged one public appearance a month in his home state of Pennsylvania, traveled three times to Florida and made one trip each to West Virginia, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona and Washington.
Luntz helped write the 1994 “Contract With America,” the issues centerpiece in the GOP’s takeover of the House a decade ago. Luntz said he recalls nothing about the 45-minute discussion with Ridge. He said he received no compensation for the meeting.
Under the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity of executive branch employees, costs associated with political activity by Cabinet members may not be paid with federal funds.
Luntz is one of “dozens, hundreds” of people the department talks to about how to better communicate the complicated issues of homeland security, Neely said.
Luntz’s comments were “very reinforcing” that the way Ridge and his aides were communicating the department’s message “was generally working, and to continue that,” said Neely.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said any assertions that politics played a part in homeland security scheduling “are absolutely inaccurate and do not reflect reality.”
Ridge also participated in a number of events last year with elected Democratic leaders.
“A vast majority” of the areas Ridge visited during his nearly two-year tenure were in urban centers and border or coastal states that tend to lean Democratic, Roehrkasse said.
When Ridge was running the department, he said the war on terrorism is “about as apolitical or bipartisan as you can get. There’s no Republican or Democratic way to do it. We just have to do it right, regardless of our party affiliation.”
At the time of Ridge’s meetings with the pollsters, President Bush’s re-election campaign was reeling from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the news media was speculating that Ridge might replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, or even Vice President Dick Cheney.
Neely said Ridge’s future in government did not come up in the meeting with Luntz.