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?

It was Netsch's ability to beat the old-boy network, contends Sullivan, that appealed to both her and Sorenson. "The boys in Springfield [the Illinois state capital] would be out in the bars partying," laughs Sullivan, who is now chief fundraiser for the Illinois chapter of the ACLU, "and Dawn would be in her office reading reports and preparing for the next battle. Katy and I both learned the importance of being prepared from watching her."

Netsch remembers Sorenson as well. "She really knew how to burrow through and figure things out politically," says Netsch, who after eighteen years in the state senate served four years as state comptroller and last year was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor. Netsch chuckles at the notion Sorenson may not be tough enough for Dade County politics. "I don't know if you've heard," she says, "but politics can get pretty rough up here in Chicago as well.

"I'll tell you right now," she offers, "Katy is not going to be a shrinking violet or a wallflower. She will not stand back and let everything move around her. If anything, she may have to be a little careful about being too outspoken. People have been surprised by her? Well, I think people are going to continue to be surprised by Katy."

Despite the political strides Sorenson was making in Chicago, when her husband was offered a job in Sacramento, California, the family picked up and moved in 1987. "I was looking for some sort of job that would involve lobbying and women's issues," Sorenson says, "and I started hanging around the capitol and I heard that there was this opening." The job was executive director of California Women Lawyers, a group representing about 40,000 female attorneys in the state. Sorenson got the position. "She was just head and shoulders above everybody else [who applied]," says Pauline Weaver, former president of the organization. "And for the first time we were truly visible at the capital." Sorenson testified about bills relating to increasing the number female state judges and on general issues regarding gender equity.

"I think people underestimate her sometimes," says Weaver. "Personally, I think she's real tough. She doesn't look that way, but she is a whole lot tougher than people give her credit for. I don't know whose weakness that is, anyway A Katy's, who has no control over the way she is seen, or the person who reads her that way. Would we even be having this conversation about a guy, about whether he is ruthless enough to be in politics? I don't even like that word, ruthless," Weaver continues. "What we are talking about is strength. And I don't think she could have survived as long as she did in Chicago and here in California without that strength."

By 1988, however, Sorenson was once again on the move -- and again because of a new career opportunity for her husband. Dzelzkalns was offered a job at an eye institute in DeLand, Florida, where Sorenson found the small-town lifestyle stifling. "Katy was going kind of crazy," say Dzelzkalns. After Chicago and Sacramento, she just couldn't find anything to keep her politically stimulated. "Socially it was like the Old South," Sorenson says. "Very provincial. I found it extremely limiting."

After two years, the family moved to Dade County. Dzelzkalns quickly established a healthy private practice and Sorenson began to think this was the place she might make her first bid for public office.

The headline in the May 27, 1994, Miami Herald hit Katy Sorenson like a bolt of lightning: "Hawkins Accused of Harassment, Second Complaint vs. Commissioner." The story began: "Metro Commissioner Larry Hawkins resigned last month from the board of a national veterans' organization after a staff member swore under oath that he harassed her sexually -- and once exposed himself to her." The article also noted that Hawkins had earlier been accused by two of his former commission secretaries of sexually harassing them as well.

"When I read that story," Sorenson recalls, "I said to myself, 'This is it. Here's my shot.'" Since moving to South Dade four years earlier, Sorenson had steadily been building a name for herself among community activists. Her children were attending Palmetto Elementary, and she became active in the school's PTA. In 1992 she was elected the school's PTA president. Quickly she expanded her work with the county and statewide chapters of the PTA. Her experiences in Illinois and California made her a natural to help the PTA lobby in Tallahassee.

"She helped us gain a level of sophistication that we had never had before in our lobbying," says Anne Thompson, president of the Florida PTA. "We've always felt that advocacy was important, but you have to know how to advocate. Katy was instrumental in helping us learn."

Dade school board member Janet McAliley says Sorenson "was a standout from the very beginning." She remembers first meeting Sorenson and being handed a business card that read, "Katy Sorenson, Woman About Town." It was her way of leaving a reminder behind with the people she met. "She appeared frequently in front of the school board," McAliley recalls. "She always said things that needed to be said, and she said them so well."

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