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Meet the new MnDOT commish

As a MnDOT employee, I followed the April 21 news about Gov. Tim Pawlenty's appointment of Tom Sorel to head the Department of Transportation with great interest.

I was not familiar with the name. Nevertheless, I was happy about the leadership change in the department.

While reading news articles about the new commissioner, something familiar caught my attention -- the fact that Sorel lives in Woodbury.

As it turns out we actually live close to each other and our kids go to the same school at Liberty Ridge.

As a columnist for Woodbury Bulletin, I have a special interest in the local community and its people.

I write about people in Woodbury whom I meet and whose stories I find interesting.

I was interested in getting to know a little more about the real person who is now my big boss and introducing his family to the community.

So, the idea to meet Sorel, his son Matthew and his wife Laurie LaCavera was born once I realized that we have something in common.

On an early Friday evening we met in the Central Park in Woodbury, one month after Sorel took over the commissioner job April 28.

Tom Sorel, 51, was born in Plattsburgh, N.Y., a rural community near the Canadian border.

He has the same name as the Canadian footwear company that makes the Sorel boots, but he is not related.

"I wish I was," Sorel said.

Loving to have fun and a good laugh, he does not mind being called "Tom Boots" or "Commissioner Boots."

One of Sorel's passions is baseball. He loves the sport.

"I had a life-changing experience when I joined a 'Baseball for Peace' tour to Nicaragua in 1989," Sorel recalled. "We played baseball with local teams and distributed baseball equipment wherever we went."

As a member of an upstate New York men's baseball team, Sorel came to the Metrodome for a tournament in 1989.

"That was my first exposure to Minnesota and I fell in love with the state," he said.

Sorel returned to Minnesota in 2005. This time, he came with his wife and their toddler son.

His 30-year career in transportation has taken him on a journey through seven states. He moved more than ten times between his jobs for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) since 1978.

"Having a child made us want to settle down. Minnesota feels like home to us," Sorel added.

In 2005, Sorel took the job to lead the FHWA Division office in St. Paul.

"We chose Woodbury because this is a growing, dynamic community with lots of activities for kids," said Laurie LaCavera. "There is a strong sense of community and we feel comfortable here.

"We like our neighborhood in Stonemill Farms. People are nice. We can count on our neighbors if we need help for things like picking up our child from school when we are late."

Having lived in several states on the east coast, Sorel has good reasons to say that his daily commuting between Woodbury and St. Paul is quite nice.

He is glad he does not have to spend one to two hours on a 10-mile trip any more.

LaCavera, a project manager at Thomson Reuters in Eagan, adds, "My commuting is not bad either. I am interested in carpool, but haven't found a match yet."

I applaud her willingness to carpool. As I mentioned in my last column, I recently started carpool. I love it.

I hope more people will make the effort to do so. The more people carpool, the easier to find a partner.

Sorel has a civil engineering background with 30 years of transportation experience.

Sorel is the first engineer to head MnDOT in 22 years. His engineering background was an important fact in governor's selection for the new leader at MnDOT whose image was shaken after the I-35W bridge collapse last August.

People inside and outside of MnDOT welcomed Sorel's appointment. It received bipartisan praise, from U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar to State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy and Sen. Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury.)

Sorel earned a civil engineering degree from the State University of New York in Buffalo and a Master's of Business Administration from Thomas College in Maine.

He also has a certificate of conflict management from Cornell School of Industrial/ Labor Relations and an associate certificate in project management from George Washington University.

Some of Sorel's accomplishments include receiving a presidential honor for coordinating the federal transportation response to the I-35W bridge collapse and serving as the USDOT liaison for federal transportation issues during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

He was involved in the effort to build infrastructure, including a light-rail line, for the Games.

It was a big jump for Sorel from running the FHWA Minnesota Division office with 22 employees to lead a 4,400-employee state agency.

"I believe it was somewhat of a calling to make this jump and serve the citizens of Minnesota in a different capacity," Sorel said.

As a servant-leader, Sorel wants to put his own self-interest aside to serve the greater good of the community.

"Rebuilding public trust and confidence in MnDOT and in the transportation system as a whole is my top priority as the new commissioner."

Sorel put his conflict management skills to use when he volunteered as an ombudsman for an agency for aging seniors where he trained others and helped resolve disputes between staff and residents.

"Then, you are good at resolving conflict in your marriage," I commented.

His wife joked, "He is definitely not clueless about conflict in marriage. But he needs to put his knowledge into more practice at home, too."

LaCavera is also from upstate New York, from the Albany area. Sorel met her while working for FHWA in Albany.

"Well, at least he is ahead of most guys in this aspect," I had to say.

I asked Sorel how his life has changed since becoming the commissioner.

"Not much so far. Balancing work and life is important to my family and me. My wife and son keep me very grounded," he replied.

"As a believer in servant leadership, I trust people around me to do good jobs. My job is to serve, inspire and empower others, not to micromanage them."

Sorel keeps involved in his young son's life. He serves as a coach for his son's baseball team.

Through their child's activities, their attendance at Five Oaks Community Church and their interactions with others in their neighborhood, Sorels have made new friends in the community.

He credits his success to the support of his family and many professional mentors through the years.

"Every day I wake up grateful for the people who are in my life and come into my life," Sorel said. "Building strong relationships and partnerships is how I measure my success."

I feel confident that Sorel will be a good commissioner for MnDOT. I wish the Sorels the best as they face new challenges and opportunities in their lives.