The Commish

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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."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede