The Commish

She's naive. She lacks experience. She's too "nice" to survive in Dade's policitical jungle. So why is Katy Sorenson so dangerous?

Since Katy Sorenson defeated incumbent Larry Hawkins this past October, she has caught a lot of people by surprise. She has become something of a celebrity in her district, which encompasses Southwest Dade, and her office is flooded with invitations to speak. She is routinely congratulated on the editorial pages of the Miami Herald for her commonsense approach to government, and is considered by some to be destined for higher office. If the commission handed out awards, 40-year-old Sorenson would no doubt win Rookie of the Year.

Praising Sorenson may be in vogue, but the level of accompanying sincerity, at least around county hall, is somewhat suspect. In addition to the debate over contingency funds, Sorenson has been the lone vote against Homestead Air Base Developers Inc., known as HABDI. She's argued that it's wrong to award exclusive rights to develop the base to a select group of politically powerful local businessmen, headed by Carlos Herrera, president of the Latin Builders Association. She has also recently opposed, along with Diaz de la Portilla, development of housing projects in areas where schools are already overcrowded. "The ethic of 'Let the builders build' has to stop," she has pronounced.

"She's getting rave reviews from people in her district," says political consultant Ric Katz. "If you go down to Metro, though, she gets mixed reviews. She doesn't seem to know who the 'gods' are. She respects no sacred cows."

The questions quietly raised about Sorenson reflect a belief, held by some commission observers, that she will be unable to sustain her image as a reformer. Some say she is too new to politics, and that over the coming months and years she will soften her principled positions. Others contend that Sorenson is simply too nice to be effective, that she doesn't have the requisite ruthlessness required to succeed -- not just personally, but for the people she was elected to represent. Look at the contingency-fund issue, critics say. Rather than lift the veil of its impropriety, why not dip into it herself to benefit a few groups in her district? That's politics. They describe her as naive. She's a novice, they argue, and the county commission is no place for political neophytes. "This is the Dade County Commission," one lobbyist scoffs, "not the PTA."

Apart from displaying a lack of knowledge about Sorenson's past, such comments also reveal the depth of cynicism that now pervades local politics: Integrity is equated with naivete. But even those who are sincere in their accolades unwittingly expose a sorry truth about Dade County: Sorenson is being congratulated for saying she will be guided by her conscience and that she is beholden to no one but her constituents. That this would be viewed as exceptional, and that it would create such a public stir, is another indication that faith in Dade's political process has hit bottom. "It's a sad commentary on the commission," agrees political consultant Phil Hamersmith, who helped organize Larry Hawkins's losing campaign. "It shows that the public has a tremendous lack of confidence in the county commission when we all stand up and reward a commissioner for doing what was obvious and should have been said a long time ago. Maybe the best thing Katy Sorenson is doing is giving people a perspective on how they should now view the commission and the types of things they should demand from their own commissioners."

During last summer's campaign, Sorenson was portrayed as a bit of a dolt A a doctor's wife with time on her hands, a bored PTA mom. She was blond and attractive, and her soft-spoken style and self-effacing humor played to that stereotype in some people's minds. "That was our spin," admits Hamersmith, "that she was a real lightweight." The pre-election debates with Hawkins did little to dispel that image, as Sorenson appeared overwhelmed by the issues. Hawkins was a technocrat who loved details, and after six years in county government he was probably better versed in policy than anyone on the commission. "In fairness," says Hamersmith, "few people can show more knowledge of the government than Larry Hawkins."

But for many people Sorenson's victory had far less to do with the quality of her candidacy than it did with the scandal surrounding her opponent. Hawkins had been dogged for months by allegations he had sexually harassed several of his aides. Sorenson was the only woman to challenge him, and she won by a margin of almost two-to-one.

Traditionally on the county commission, the path to success for women seemed to be measured by their ability to emulate their male counterparts. In that regard, Sorenson is unlike any of the current female commissioners. When Betty Ferguson speaks, she's often already on the losing end of a debate, and frequently comes across as whiny and peevish, mixing equal doses of anger and resentment. Natacha Millan and Gwen Margolis, who are widely considered to be more effective politicians, have previously shown themselves capable of the brass-knuckle politics their male colleagues understand and respect, Millan on the Hialeah City Council and Margolis in the state legislature.

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