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?

In addition to her work with the PTA, Sorenson volunteered with the local chapter of EMILY's List, a national organization that raises money for female political candidates, and in 1992 helped arrange one of the group's Miami fundraisers. She kept a copy of the list of invited guests and contributors in the belief it might someday come in handy. "It was very calculated," she acknowledges. "That was a great list for me to draw from -- all the political women in the area. The whole event was a way to meet the powerful women who care about politics in this community."

In 1993 Sorenson was appointed president of the Women's Emergency Network, a local group that aids poor women who want an abortion but can't afford one. The organization, formed in 1990, provides no counseling and no medical services; it only offers money, and is usually called in at the request of social service agencies or women's shelters. Executive director Emily England estimates that in the last two years the network has raised nearly $140,000 and helped more than 400 women afford abortions. In 1993, when the organization's president, Jeri Cohen, ran for circuit court judge, Sorenson stepped in to take over the unpaid position. "Women who have jobs or money will always find ways to have abortions, even if they are illegal," says Sorenson. "The network just guarantees that poor women will have access to their legal rights."

Sorenson's efforts with EMILY's List and her leadership role with the Women's Emergency Network provide a telling insight into her character. She calculatedly used her association with EMILY's List to her political advantage. But volunteering to serve as president of a potentially controversial organization that funds hundreds of abortions would be viewed by many as a political liability. Those who know Sorenson, however, see nothing incongruous. "Katy Sorenson is going to stand on her convictions," says the abortion group's Emily England. "Katy wanted to get into politics to make the world better, not to achieve power."

Even those who differ with her philosophically admire Sorenson's forthrightness. "She certainly doesn't have a hidden agenda," concedes state Senator Mario Diaz-Balart, who first met Sorenson when she was lobbying for the PTA in Tallahassee. "Whatever she is fighting for, she does because she believes it is the right thing to do. And if that's the case, she is going to win more battles than she is going to lose.

"When I first met with her," the Republican senator continues, "I thought that this is a woman who should run for office. This is a woman who has the love and conviction of her beliefs."

In July of last year, Sorenson announced she would challenge Larry Hawkins. Standing in front of county hall, surrounded by well-wishers, she proclaimed that Hawkins must go. Although for years she had been considering a run for office, this decision in many ways was rushed. Her work with the PTA made a seat on the school board a logical option. Her lobbying experience might have pointed her toward a state legislative post. Third on her list of possibilities was the county commission. "I had much more experience on the legislative level," she explains. "I had lobbied on school issues and women's issues in front of the legislature. And I was regular speaker at school board meetings. But I had very little contact with the county commission. So in a way it was a surprise to me I ended up running for the county commission, but to me it looked like my best shot. In politics you don't have that luxury to choose exactly your office and then run for it. You have to maximize what comes your way. And in this case, I took what came to me."

As expected, Hawkins vastly outspent her, having raised nearly $500,000 during the campaign cycle. Sorenson, in stark contrast, raised only $40,000 in the first four months of her campaign. But after winning the primary, she raised another $80,000 in just three weeks. "It didn't matter," Sorenson says of the lopsided war chests. "I felt I had so many more committed volunteers than he had money that it really didn't make a difference." Her volunteers numbered in the hundreds and included many of the people she had met through the PTA. On election day Sorenson won handily with more than 60 percent of the vote.

The moment couldn't have been better scripted. Riding down Krome Avenue earlier this month atop a beautiful white horse, Sorenson waved to the cheering crowds gathered for Homestead's annual rodeo. They roared their approval as she passed, as if a new marshal had suddenly ridden into their lawless town. And the commissioner played the part, complete with white cowboy hat.

A few days later the South Dade News Leader ran a picture of Sorenson in the parade accompanied by this caption: "Not only did Metro Commissioner Katy Sorenson ride into town during Saturday's Homestead Rodeo Parade, she rode into many hearts as well. Sorenson has won more than a few local fans with her firm stance in the face of her colleagues on issues that affect South Dade. Hats off to Katy for refusing to back down."

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