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?

Sorenson didn't fit the mold. So in the rush to label her, most political pundits predicted her term would resemble that of Mary Collins, a likeable but unremarkable member of the commission from 1990 to 1993.

Today commission Chairman Teele describes Sorenson as "deceptively brilliant," adding that because of her normally nonconfrontational style, she continues to be underestimated. "On the dais, what Katy does is ask questions," Teele observes, "and it appears she is trying to find her way, when in reality she is already far down the path and she's just trying to bring the rest of us along. People totally underestimated her. In retrospect it was probably the best thing that could have happened to her, because in politics if you beat the expectations, you are seen as rising. Katy is beating all the expectations, and that is a brilliant position to be in."

Those people who have known Sorenson for years would have expected nothing less from her.

She was just ten years old when she was introduced to the civil rights movement. The mother of Sorenson's best friend, Marian Ring, was helping to organize a 1965 demonstration against a group of Realtors and others who had refused to rent or sell homes to black families in a Chicago suburb. "We would always bring our children with us to the demonstrations," recalls Pat Ring, now a VISTA volunteer in Idaho. "And since Katy was visiting us at the time from Milwaukee, we would have naturally included her in the group. Bringing the kids along helped increase our numbers, but more so I thought it was an important time in our country's history and that kids should be involved in it."

About 200 people A both black and white A gathered in front of the local post office, waving placards and demanding the passage of fair-housing laws. They marched back and forth for several hours, singing "We Shall Overcome." And then they all went home. No new laws were passed that afternoon. And the neighborhood hadn't instantly been integrated. Yet the protest, and others that followed, had a lasting impact on Sorenson. "That really sort of clicked for me," she remembers. "There was something about that demonstration that caused me to understand that there was something bigger than myself out there and how important it was to stand up for what you think is right."

Sorenson's social consciousness soared. Marian Ring remembers the two of them going door-to-door, and stuffing envelopes for local candidates and social causes. "There was always a lot of political talk going on in our family," says Ring, who in addition to being Sorenson's best friend is also her second cousin. "It was the Sixties, and from a very young age we were committed."

"There was a lot of prejudice and I was called 'nigger lover' on many occasions," Sorenson remembers. "I learned to wear that as a badge of honor rather than any kind of derogatory insult. That stayed with me A that I could go against the flow and be strong and feel that I was doing the right thing."

Sorenson didn't need to visit her cousin in Chicago, however, to remain inspired. Her parents were lifelong Democrats and her father had even run for alderman in Milwaukee (he finished eighth in a field of nine). Howard Sorenson was a technical writer and editor who worked for various engineering firms; Anita Sorenson was a copywriter for an advertising agency. Neither had graduated from college, though all five of their children would.

Katy was their first child, born in Chicago. When she was three, the family moved first to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and then on to Milwaukee when she was ten.

For strong female role models, she didn't need to look much beyond her mother. "Katy took on a lot of responsibility when she was young," recalls Anita Sorenson. "We expected all of our kids to take on responsibility. Katy was also a very gregarious child; she liked to have people around her. I remember when she was three, she used to tell me all the time, 'Let's get in the car and visit somebody.'"

Howard and Anita Sorenson raised their children as Catholics. Katy even played the guitar during Sunday Mass, and for a time she found strength in the church's stand for racial equality. But as the civil rights movement progressed, she also developed an understanding of feminism. "The church didn't see women as being equal to men," Sorenson sighs. "It was very disappointing to me because I had been so involved and had been going to Catholic schools. You ask me about taking stands -- my decision to leave the Catholic Church was one of them. I couldn't be a part of this group that really didn't see any advances for women. That was a painful decision for me and it was painful for my parents."

Sorenson's break with the church came as she was preparing to graduate from high school in 1972. "We may have been hurt at the time," recalls her mother, "but we decided with all of our children that they would eventually have to make up their own minds." Adds her father: "She's always had her own opinions about things. She wasn't the easiest gal to get along with at times. She was quite rebellious, very independent and strong-headed."

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