By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Terrence McCoy
By Jeff Weinberger
By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
With Chairman Art Teele temporarily out of the chambers, Alex Penelas was running the October 20 county commission meeting, and doing his best to keep the agenda moving. "There are some items here that perhaps we can dispense with rather quickly," he told his colleagues. Turning to Commissioner Javier Souto, he noted a resolution the commissioner sponsored allocating $5000 from the county's contingency fund to the Miami Coral Park Senior High School marching band so they could travel to Atlanta for a competition. The matter was so routine that Penelas immediately asked, "All those in favor indicate by saying aye."
As commissioners began automatically declaring their support, one voice interrupted: "Discussion, Mr. Chairman? Discussion?" Startled, Penelas turned to his newest colleague. "I'm sorry, Commissioner Sorenson," he said, and allowed her to speak.
Katy Sorenson had been sworn into office only 48 hours earlier and had surprised many on the dais by giving the most thoughtful inauguration speech of the day, eloquently calling for a return to the simple tenets of integrity in government and the desire to restore public confidence in an institution that seemed to have lost its way. Now, at her second commission meeting, she seemed ready to act on her promise. "Mr. Chairman," she began, "I have a real problem with the contingency fund being used in this way." She explained that by its very nature a contingency fund should only be used for emergencies and therefore she would oppose the motion.
"Okay," Penelas replied without elaboration. By now Teele had walked back into the room and, reading the tension, privately asked Commissioner Maurice Ferre what was being debated. "It's $5000 for some marching band," Ferre explained in a hushed tone.
All eyes now turned to Souto. As the sponsor of the measure it would be up to him to defend it. Clearly flustered, and with aides scurrying about handing him notes, Souto shook his head. In the two years since the commission had been expanded to thirteen members, dipping into the contingency fund for pet projects had become a routine affair. No commissioner ever vigorously challenged another's right to do so; it was a matter of courtesy. But more than courtesy, it was also a matter of political savvy. Commissioners who supported Souto's request today could expect his support in the future when it was their turn to draw money from the fund. After a long pause, Souto explained that the band needed to leave in the next few days and there wasn't time to find money from another source. "It's $5000," he said dismissively.
Ferre, a likely contender in the Metro mayor's race next year, then announced he would not support Souto's request. Like Sorenson, he, too, was troubled by the unfettered raids on the contingency fund. A few minutes later Penelas, another mayoral hopeful, added, "I want to associate myself with the comments of Commissioner Sorenson. I probably have been one of the greatest spenders from the contingency fund, but I really do think it is about time [the practice stopped]."
As Penelas spoke, Ferre mockingly called out, "Here we go. Reform! Reform!" Undeterred, Penelas continued. Looking directly at Sorenson, he said, "I'm glad you brought it up. It was a great way of starting commissioner, and I congratulate you on that."
Still at a loss to understand that the tide was quickly turning against him, Souto again attempted to defend the expenditure. "This is one of our top bands," he insisted. Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla came to Souto's rescue by offering a solution. Diaz de la Portilla offered to donate $2500 from his office budget if Souto would do the same. Souto agreed and the matter was resolved. But then Teele, while complimenting Sorenson, pointed out that two days earlier she had voted to spend $30,000 from the contingency fund for an event called Art Deco Carnival. During the rush of her first day in office, she had voted for the measure without realizing the money was coming from the contingency fund, she later explained. Taking up Teele's challenge, though, she moved to reconsider the Art Deco vote, which prompted a new round of recriminations.
Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who had sponsored the Art Deco expenditure, became visibly upset when he was called on to speak. "You really don't want to hear what I have to say," he fumed. Looking at Sorenson, Kaplan issued a warning to her and the other commissioners. "I would implore that she withdraw her motion in the spirit of collegiality and let's get on with business," he declared, "because if we are going to start doing this, I see no end to it. We're going down a very, very slippery slope and we're doing it very quickly." Kaplan's message was clear: Repeal his funds and he'd move to repeal other's, as well.
With the commission about to become bogged down on the issue, Sorenson agreed to withdraw her motion, and said she agreed that it was unfair for the commission to fund a group one day and then withdraw their money the next. But Sorenson issued her own warning: "I want to say, however, that this [Art Deco funding] got by me. But I am going to be more and more alert the longer I am a commissioner, you can be assured of that."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
Sorenson is indeed a star in her district, and her evenings are regularly filled with speaking engagements before community groups. Leading up to Saturday morning's rodeo, for instance, she had spent Tuesday night addressing the Kendall Kiwanis Club, Wednesday evening at a forum sponsored by the South Dade Chamber of Commerce discussing the issue of incorporation, Thursday night presenting her thoughts about school overcrowding to a League of Cities meeting in Miami Beach, and Friday evening attending a reception for the opening of a new play at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
During Tuesday night's Kiwanis Club affair, as Sorenson made her way through the food-serving line, a man approached her, introduced himself, and asked, "You really don't care if you get re-elected, do you?" The question held the unspoken observation that Sorenson, in challenging the status quo and questioning many of the Dade's most powerful interests, is running the risk of making a host of very important enemies. Sorenson understood what the man was asking, smiled, and answered, "No, I don't."
Later, during her remarks to the group, she recounted the question and expanded on her answer: "Once I start caring too much [about being re-elected] I can't do the job I need to be doing." And in a subtle rebuke to her fellow commissioners already busy eyeing their next race, she added, "County commissioners have to look beyond elections."
Sorenson outlined a few of her early positions. She repeated her opposition to the HABDI proposal for the development of Homestead Air Force Base. She addressed school overcrowding. And she relived her fight over limiting the use of the county's contingency fund. "You'd think I'd touched off the Boston Tea Party," she laughed from the podium. "Everybody was congratulating me afterward. I couldn't believe it. What had I done that was so amazing? It showed me the public was just starving for someone who would deal with the county budget the way you deal with a budget at home. You ask yourself, 'Can you afford it?' And if you can't, you don't spend money on it." She then told the crowd about her resolution, passed a couple of weeks earlier, forbidding the contingency fund from being used for anything other than true emergencies. "It passed eleven-to-two," she noted as the crowd began applauding her efforts. Buoyed by their support, she shouted, "Good-bye beauty pageants and hello good government!"
As she tried to make a fast exit, several people came up to shake her hand and offer words of encouragement. She hadn't expected the event to run as long as it had, and as she walked outside she muttered to herself: "It's a little after nine. I might be able to catch the last inning."
Her nine-year-old son, Arnie, was playing in the season's first Little League baseball game and Sorenson didn't want to miss it. Employing a lead foot and a healthy disregard for stop signs, the commissioner raced to the parking lot of Suniland Recreation Center at 128th Street and South Dixie Highway. Emerging from her minivan, she announced, "Now I get to be mom." Her husband had dropped off Arnie for the beginning of the game, but because he had been in surgery all day, he was exhausted and had gone home. When Sorenson arrived, the game was a little more than half over.
The election campaign had been roughest on her children, she recalls later. Brutally long hours. But even today, as she tries to settle into a routine, she is still separated from her family more than she would like. "I had a dream the other night that I forgot the names of my kids," she says, smiling uncomfortably, "and I began to wonder if maybe there is a message somewhere in there."
Still, Sorenson is lucky to have had the financial independence to run for office and the time to actually perform the job. A housekeeper comes by four hours per day, five times a week; and for the past few months her mother-in-law has been staying at the house. But Sorenson's hours are still a source of concern. "The kids don't like her not coming home for dinner," says Janis Dzelzkalns, her husband. "They are resentful of the time she's away. We don't get as much of her as we used to, so we have to make the most of the moments we're together."
Dzelzkalns doesn't seem to be enjoying his new role as political husband. The campaign, he says, was exciting and introduced them to a lot of new friends, but taking part in public events or being interviewed by reporters is not something he relishes. "I'm not the public figure and I don't like the attention or the questions," he confides. "I'm just in the background."
"When I was running for office, I always heard about the commission in animal terms," Sorenson recalls. "That it was a snake pit, a shark tank, a lion's den. In some ways it seemed to be so...so...animalistic," she laughs. "My impression was that some people were trying to do the right thing and that some people were just totally political animals posturing for themselves and whatever gain they could get out of it."
Since joining the commission, her impression hasn't changed much. "I don't want to come across as grandiose or above everyone else at all," she says. "I just think I am someone who wants to add a voice of reason, the voice of someone who wants to do the right thing, because that's what people want. But more than people wanting it, it's what we need. We need people who have integrity, who have ethics, who really want to move things forward for the greater good of the community.
"I'm so tired of all the cynicism. And I think everyone is. People are looking for leaders who aren't cynical. I think there are those of us around, and maybe there can be a renaissance. There are certainly a lot of things to solve in this community."
So far Sorenson has publicly addressed only a few of those problems, but already she says she is amazed that some commissioners assume her actions are motivated by something personal. For instance, following the debate about the contingency fund, Bruce Kaplan grabbed a member of Sorenson's staff in the hallway and demanded to know why Sorenson would personally attack him by challenging the Art Deco funding. Was this the start of some South Dade-Miami Beach feud, he wanted to know.
"I guess I'm pollyanna enough to think I can still have positive relationships with fellow commissioners and they will see that none of these things are personal," Sorenson says. "I really do weigh issues on the merits. I don't have vendettas against anyone. I just don't look at things that way."
When she opposed the exclusive HABDI development proposal -- arguing that it should be opened to competitive bidding -- the head of HABDI, Carlos Herrera, went on Spanish-language radio and suggested that Sorenson was a racist trying to take jobs away from minorities. William Delgado, executive director of the Latin Builders Association, wrote a letter to all commission members claiming that Sorenson's actions were "a direct attack to the Latin and African-American communities."
"I find it offensive," Sorenson retorts, "to make it an ethnic issue when it really isn't. For me it is an issue of good government. It is such a dishonest approach to say I'm trying to take work away from Hispanics. Yuck."
Despite her promising start, Sorenson's supporters still worry that somehow she will be seduced by power. "Maybe I'm being obtuse," she says in response, "but I don't feel any pressure to conform. I always ask myself, 'What is the worst that can happen?' I won't get re-elected. Okay, there are other things I can do. Nobody can take my family away from me. Nobody can take my children from me.
"I think I am one of the toughest people on this commission," she asserts. "I think I am very tough because I won't compromise on things I don't think should be compromised. I've always been told that politics is the art of the possible. Well, I don't believe that. I believe that politics is the art of the impossible. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here. I'm an unabashed optimist and idealist. I always have been and I always will be.