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Pittsburgh's next solicitor Sanchez Ridge can be an 'agent of change'

| Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, 11:46 p.m.
Pittsburgh City Council confirmed Lourdes Sanchez Ridge as city solicitor by an 8-1 vote, with Councilwoman Darlene Harris dissenting.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh City Council confirmed Lourdes Sanchez Ridge as city solicitor by an 8-1 vote, with Councilwoman Darlene Harris dissenting.

Lourdes Sanchez Ridge chose a career in law on a lark and never looked back.

Getting her to take the job as Pittsburgh's next chief legal officer took some convincing.

“We told her, ‘You can truly be an agent of change.' Once she figured that out, she got excited,” said Victor Diaz of the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corp., who has worked with her for 11 years.

“This is a time that the prospect of change to the positive is enormous,” Sanchez Ridge said during an interview in the Clark Hill Thorp Reed law office, Downtown, that she leaves next week for a spot in the City-County Building across Grant Street.

Mayor-elect Bill Peduto chose Sanchez Ridge, 52, to lead the city Law Department because the former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney will set a high ethical bar for all city employees, said incoming Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin.

“We wanted to send a message by having somebody there who's independent and no-nonsense,” said Acklin, who noted her reputation as a tough litigator. “The rule of law is an element that we're going to need to respect for people to regain faith in city government.”

For the past year, city residents and employees watched former police Chief Nate Harper get indicted on corruption charges and then a dozen people close to outgoing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appear before a federal grand jury as part of an ongoing investigation. Sanchez Ridge said she wants to make government operations more open and transparent to employees and residents.

To revive the Ethics Hearing Board and overhaul the Office of Municipal Investigations, Peduto, a Democrat, chose a Republican from Upper St. Clair who did not donate to his campaign, who led internal investigations of companies and who has a healthy distrust of government.

“She's told me and Bill that she will keep an eye on us,” Acklin said.

Sanchez Ridge expects some independence from Peduto's office.

“I'm not his personal attorney,” she said.

Her watchdog spirit dates to a childhood in communist Cuba.

“The government is in everyone's lives there. If you speak badly about it, you go to jail,” said Sanchez Ridge, whose family fled to Miami when she was 6. “There has to be that check on the government.”

While debating majors at the University of Miami, her brother suggested getting a degree in accounting and going to law school.

“It took 30 seconds,” she said about her decision 30 years ago.

As a state prosecutor in Florida and then assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, she prosecuted street crimes at the height of the 1980s cocaine wars.

She switched to defending people in white-collar crime cases after moving to Pittsburgh with husband Bob Ridge — a fellow attorney — and taking time off to raise three children.

She said she is moving her family to Shadyside for her city job and taking a pay cut because she sees a chance to make a difference. She will make $105,000 annually.

“We can build a community where citizens have a relationship with city government,” Sanchez Ridge said.

She has experience organizing communities. She said when she moved to Pittsburgh, the small Latino community was spread out. She took leadership of a dormant Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that helps connect smaller businesses to larger corporations.

Diaz and Acklin said her no-nonsense attitude is what the city needs.

“We're both Cuban, and I'm also a business guy taking risks. Lourdes has always been the voice of reason, keeping me in check,” Diaz said. “She'll dot every ‘I' and cross every ‘T.' ”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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