UWM alum gives a fresh perspective to Sheboygan mayor’s office

Ryan Sorenson’s mother gives good advice.

“Growing up, my mom always said, ‘Don’t sit on the sidelines and complain. Get in the game and make a difference,” he recalled from his desk in the mayor’s office in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “I think folks see that, especially in a city like Sheboygan, your voice matters here. We can get a lot of awesome things done here.”

Sorenson grew up in Sheboygan and, in 2021 at the age of 27, was elected the city’s youngest mayor in history. Now, with a year of leadership under his belt, Sorenson finds that the job has made him fall even more in love with his hometown.

“As the mayor, you’re in the thick of the sausage-making machine,” he joked. “For me, it doubles down my feelings of commitment to this community. You just see how passionate people are about making Sheboygan a better place.”

Learning the political ropes

Sorenson’s political career began at UW-Milwaukee, where he majored in political science. He was a member of the Student Association, serving as its president during his junior year.

For him, UWM was the right choice beause it checked many of his college boxes: A large university, close to home but not too close, plenty of activities and ways to get involved, and great professors.

“Paru Shah was definitely an awesome professor that I had,” Sorenson said. “When you have an urban politics professor, it’s a good platform to educate students on how to become mayor. I’m kidding, but that’s where I really got into the weeds in terms of politics at the local level.”

He might joke, but Sorenson put his education to work immediately upon graduating in 2016. He ran for and won a seat on the Sheboygan City Council in 2017, defeating a 10-year incumbent with 74% of the vote. In 2020, he became the Common Council president.

“I made it a goal of mine to build better connections with business leaders, nonprofits, small business owners, just to say, what’s working and what’s not? How can the city government better help you?” Sorenson recalled.

Those were welcome questions at the start of the pandemic. Community leaders appreciated Sorenson’s desire to strengthen Sheboygan.

“People were like, ‘Well, we have an election coming up,’” Sorenson recalled. “‘Why don’t you run for mayor?’”

Their encouragement and his love for his hometown convinced Sorenson to start a campaign. He thought his youth and energy, combined with his experience on the City Council, might make him a good fit for the job.

Voters agreed.

Sheboygan’s champion

As its mayor, Sorenson is Sheboygan’s biggest cheerleader. He’ll happily tell you about the city’s businesses, its diversity, and its willingness to try new things. His enthusiasm for it is contagious.

“Sheboygan is the Malibu of the Midwest,” he declared. “We are the No. 1 freshwater surf capital in the world. Last year, we had the best tourism year on record. We hosted the Ryder Cup. We’re a hidden foodie capital of the world. We have some awesome resorts. You name it, Sheboygan has got it.”

But there’s always room for improvement, and Sorenson has a list. He admits that the city is “not super proud of” its roads, and there’s a lack of affordable housing. Businesses are still recovering from the shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his first year as mayor, he’s pleased that he and city stakeholders have made progress on all of those fronts.

“We’re kick-starting our new strategic plan, so we’re excited about that,” Sorensen said. “And it’s exciting to get caught up on our road projects, as well as collaborating with other key partners in the area start building affordable housing projects.

“Sheboygan is growing. We’re expanding and keeping the energy going, but also keeping that same flavor that makes Sheboygan unique and awesome.”

Young government

There’s one more way that Sorenson may have helped change his city, though he denies credit. When he was elected to the City Council in 2017, he was the only alderperson under the age of 40.

Most of the other council members were retired.

Today, “We have the most diverse council that we’ve ever had. We actually have, for the first time in our history, a female majority on the city council, and a handful of Millennials now. Our oldest age is 75 and our youngest age is 25,” Sorenson said.

He stops short of saying he’s the inspiration for such a change, but instead, points to how Millennials are taking a much bigger part in local government across the state of Wisconsin. Cavalier Johnson, recently elected the Mayor of Milwaukee, is a Millennial, Sorenson noted. So are the mayors of Wausau, Manitowoc, and Superior, as well as in other towns and cities.

Sorenson is excited to see more young people get involved in politics. Some might see their lack of experience as a hinderance, but Sorenson thinks a fresh perspective is a strength.

“I’m not going to have all of the answers,” he admitted. “But (my age) is also an advantage because it doesn’t necessarily box me into saying, well, this is the way we’ve always done things. … If we work together, collaborate, and think outside the box, somebody is going to have a good idea and we can push some awesome initiatives.”