Longform

The Commish

Page 3 of 9

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.'"

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede