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  Fall 2015 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Fall 2015 issue.
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C.A. Sorensen layout

Plains Crusader: C. A. Sorensen’s Assault on Organized Crime and the Political Machine in Omaha Juliet Sorensen

Introduction: The Downfall of “A Small Al Capone Chicago”

In 1930 Omaha was a bustling Midwestern hub of meatpacking, stockyards, and packing houses. Its population had grown from 105,555 in 1900 to 214,175, as immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, and Bohemia moved to the city by the thousands, eager to seize the opportunities offered by a growing economy. To the naked eye Omaha was thriving, but the reality was grimmer: Omaha’s government and business community were under the control of organized crime.

The organization, known simply as “The Gang,” had been ruled with an iron fist by political boss Tom Dennison since the turn of the century. Dennison, a professional gambler and power broker, controlled not only electoral politics—filling the local slate with pre-approved candidates to ensure favorable treatment by judges, the chief of police, and the mayor—but also the city’s illegal businesses, including prostitution, gambling, and speakeasies. Honest businesses, too, were pressured by Dennison to pay The Gang for protection and to take out extortionate “juice” loans when in need of credit. The prevalence of these activities earned Omaha the reputation of a Sin City.

In two short years, however, The Gang’s grip on both the political and the criminal circles in Omaha was released completely. That The Gang disbanded so completely in such a short period is noteworthy, all the more so because its dissolution was due in significant part to a statewide elected official, C. A. Sorensen, also seeking political support in Omaha.

The Plains Crusader

The son of Danish immigrants, Christian Abraham (“C. A.”) Sorensen was born in a sod house in rural Nebraska in 1890, the eldest of ten children. After graduation from Loup City High School, Sorensen studied for two summers at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. He then attended Grand Island Baptist College, which expelled him in 1912 after he gave a speech in a state oratorical contest questioning religious ritual and decrying humanity’s tendency to unthinkingly accept the status quo. Part of the speech, entitled “The Hand of the Past,” is instructive of Sorensen’s later approach to business as usual in Omaha:

“There is a popular belief that rises like a mountain chain across the path of progress . . . the belief that things are sacred because they are old, or . . . dangerous because they are new . . . an undue reverence for the past and the achievement of the dead. Thus, we, the living, are in intellectual bondage to the spirits of the dead. . . . The voice of the past, right or wrong, is to us the voice of God . . . we offer up our prayers before the shrine of time-honored falsehoods.”

The result of the speech was a top prize in the contest and expulsion from Grand Island Baptist College.

After his dismissal from Grand Island, Sorensen completed his undergraduate and law studies in 1916 at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. As stated in his Report of the Attorney General of the State of Nebraska in 1932, he held lawyers to a high standard: “Only he whose character is beyond reproach, who loves learning the law for its own sake, who hates fraud, injustice and tyranny, and who is ever ready to champion every righteous cause, is entitled to call himself a lawyer.” A review of his early law practice gives a hint of what was to come: in 1918 Sorensen represented the Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association in successfully blocking a referendum intended to invalidate a partial women’s suffrage law. Thousands of forged signatures were discovered on the petition for referendum, confirmed by depositions taken all across the state.

Sorensen was skeptical of the “regular” leaders of either major political party in Nebraska at that time. The Republicans, he believed, were the captives of the out-of-state corporate industries of the time such as cement, electrical power, and railroads. As for the Nebraska Democratic organization, Sorensen wrote to U.S. Senator George Norris that it was “nothing but a patronage machine operating under a sign: ‘To the victor belongs the spoils.’”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, his skepticism of Nebraska politics, Sorensen was drawn to government service. On the university campus in 1914, he organized the young Republicans in support of a progressive Republican candidate for governor, R. B. Howell. In 1918 he organized Farmers for Norris for Senate. In 1920 he managed the independent campaign of Arthur Wray for governor. In 1924 Sorensen was Norris’s campaign manager in a successful primary election. In 1928 Sorensen himself became one of seven candidates for the Republican Party’s nomination for the office of state Attorney General.

The entire essay appears in the Fall 2015 issue.

T. B. Hord layout


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