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Sorenson now describes herself and her husband as "a-religious," and neither of their two children are being raised in a particular faith. "They are given strong principals from a human perspective," Sorenson says, "trying to incorporate good and positive messages from wherever we can get them."
Unable to afford college out of town, Sorenson attended the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and put herself through school as a waitress, first at a German restaurant and then at a Serbian diner.
Given her background, her choice of majors in college was obvious: social work. The program had few actual classes and offered more practical field work, which she enjoyed. Initially she thought of becoming a counselor or a therapist. "What I found out was that I couldn't do one-on-one counseling; it just gave me a terrible headache," Sorenson grimaces. "I would feel so overwhelmed with these people's problems. And I also started seeing that many of these problems were beyond individual situations, that they were really more social problems. And the conditions that people found themselves in were really part of a much bigger picture."
When she graduated in 1977, she found a job with the Counseling Center of Milwaukee, developing a drug-intervention program for local high schools. "After a while, Katy told me how ridiculous the current program was, and how what we really needed to do was train the teachers to get more involved," recounts Ted Seaver, who was then the executive director of the center. "That was Katy's idea and she was the pioneering force in developing it." Sorenson's concept was tested in two local high schools and eventually spread throughout the district. "In Katy Sorenson I saw someone with a lot of confidence," says Seaver, who is now the director of Milwaukee's Neighborhood Housing Service. "Where other people saw pitfalls, Katy always saw opportunities."
While in college, she had met Janis Dzelzkalns (pronounced Yahn-iss Zelz-cahns), a student a few years older than she. "We clicked right from the start," Dzelzkalns remembers. "I could talk to her. She was intelligent and engaging and we enjoyed talking." After dating for three years, the two married in 1978. Sorenson left the counseling center, and Milwaukee, not long afterward. Both she and Janis were going to attend graduate programs at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Janis would be in medical school there while she pursued a master's degree in social work.
By 1980, as she was finishing school, Sorenson went to work for the United Way of Madison as the agency's assistant director of planning and allocations. "United Way and I just did not get along," Sorenson says, shaking her head. "It's the only job I have ever been fired from. And that is another thing I wear as a badge of honor. I just thought they were really unfair in their policies. I would ask questions like, 'Why do you fund the Girl Scouts so much less than you do the Boy Scouts? Why does the YMCA get so much more money than the YWCA? Why do the secretaries make like $8000 a year and do all the work and the executive director gets a car, makes a mega salary, and all he does is have lunch?' So they didn't like me and they fired me."
She found another job with a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, and turned more of her attention to local politics, volunteering time at the Wisconsin Women's Political Caucus, editing their state newsletter. She also volunteered her services for numerous local political campaigns. In August 1982, Sorenson gave birth to her and Janis's first child, Emma.
By 1984 they had moved to Chicago, where Janis was completing his medical residency as an eye surgeon and Sorenson had found a job with Walter Mondale as a paid staffer on his 1984 presidential campaign in Illinois. "The Mondale campaign gave me my first real taste of what politics was," Sorenson recollects. She was responsible for bringing in nationally prominent speakers, including such figures such as Congressman Claude Pepper from Florida, Senator Barbara Mikulski from Maryland, and Diane Feinstein, who was then mayor of San Francisco and today is a U.S. Senator. "They'd come up for a few days," Sorenson says, "and I'd find the time to ask them how they got into public office. What motivated them? What steps did they take to get there? I tried to learn everything I could from them."
In the summer of 1984, she went to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, not as a delegate but as a spectator, a political groupie. "We spent the whole convention just soaking it all in," recalls K.T. Sullivan, a Sorenson friend from Chicago. Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as vice president, the only time a major party has included a woman on its presidential ticket. Sullivan had been working for Dawn Clark Netsch, an Ilinois state senator, and following Mondale's loss in November 1984, she hired Sorenson to run Netsch's district office. Sorenson had just given birth to their second child, Arnie, and she would bring the baby to work with her each day.
Netsch herself is something of a legendary figure in Illinois politics. Her district comprised the north side of Chicago and included some of the city's wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods. A Democrat, she came to office in 1972 by bucking the political machine of Mayor Richard Daly. "She was very inspiring to me," says Sorenson. "And still is. She is definitely one of my role models."