Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge was fresh out of law school and not far removed from a childhood in communist Cuba when she was hired by the Florida State Attorney's office in Miami at a time when the city was reeling from the drug trade.
She doesn't remember much about the first case she took to trial, except for one thing: that distinctive crunch and clink of metal as the defendant was put in handcuffs and led away.
"I realized, the first time that I heard the handcuffs, the sound of handcuffs, that clink of handcuffs ... the power that the state has over people [and] I decided that I had to make sure the state never does what it did in Cuba," she said.
Ms. Sanchez-Ridge, 52, was confirmed as the city of Pittsburgh's new solicitor and chief legal officer late last month, though she's served in the position in an acting capacity since Mayor Bill Peduto's inauguration Jan. 6. She brings a resume that includes time battling the drug trade and related crimes in south Florida and experience as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. More recently, she was a white collar criminal defense attorney, representing individuals and corporations accused of civil violations.
Despite her credentials, her confirmation wasn't without its hitches.
Council members grilled her about her living situation, suggesting that she might be in violation of the city's residency requirements because her husband and youngest daughter still live in their home in Upper St. Clair while she said she lives at a condominium in Shadyside. After assurances from the law department that she met the requirements, she was ultimately approved with an 8-1 vote, with Councilwoman Darlene Harris dissenting.
Ms. Sanchez-Ridge said she had planned to move into the city with her husband when her youngest child had graduated high school.
"It was something we wanted to do anyway when the kids were gone," she said. "If this had been next year, this wouldn't be a problem."
But she was offended by the probing nature of the questions about her personal life.
"I bought this place, I'm living there, I'm separated from my family ... it's a big sacrifice," she said.
It's unclear how her ideology -- she's the sole Republican in Mr. Peduto's cabinet -- will impact her role in the city. In the past, solicitors have not necessarily played a large role in shaping policy. But she said she believes the best way to fight the overreach of government is to work from within it.
Her beliefs are shaped by memories of her life in Cuba. She was born in 1961, just two years after Fidel Castro took the reins of power. She vividly recalls her early childhood there -- days when food rations were not enough, daily blackouts, and the fearsome Comites de Defensa -- groups empowered by the government to search homes and personal belongings without cause.
When the power went out and the sweltering heat drove her family into the yard, she recalled speaking in hushed tones, weary that neighbors would turn the family in for speaking against the government.
"We had to speak in codes, and we had to speak very low," she said. "It was that fear ... that anybody could turn you in."
The family escaped in 1968, coming to the United States as refugees and settling into the Cuban expatriate community in the Miami suburb of Hialeah. Her decision to become an attorney came when she was a junior at University of Miami with little idea what she wanted to do with her life. Then her brother casually suggested she get an accounting degree and become an attorney, in what she described as a 30-second conversation while she watched TV.
"I changed my major the next day," she said.
She went on to attend the University of Florida, earning her juris doctorate in 1985. After spending time with the state attorney general's office in Florida under then state attorney general Janet Reno, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she was a federal prosecutor.
There, she met her husband, Robert Ridge, and moved with him to his hometown in South Hills at the end of 1989.
She took 14 years off full-time work to raise her three children, taking on volunteer roles as a board member of Family Links, a social service provider, and working with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
She went back to work in 2004 with Thorp Reed, where she was a white-collar criminal defense attorney.
She also helped corporations develop compliance plans -- which is exactly the kind of work that led Mr. Peduto to chose her.
In November, when Mr. Peduto announced that she was his choice for solicitor, his chief of staff Kevin Acklin touted her credentials and said she had "spent more of her career doing exactly what we'd like to have in the law department, and that's setting the tone against fraud and corruption."
Given that she spent part of her career defending clients accused of ethics violations, she said she's well-suited for the role.
"Because I know how they do it!" she said with a laugh.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published February 20, 2014 11:15 PM