Serious Dilettante

Little-known mayoral candidate Isa Infante begins to find name recognition

City Beat

At first glance, mayoral candidate Isa Infante might seem more like a charming eccentric than a serious political contender, having entered the Knoxville mayoral race on a lark scarcely a year after moving back from Boston. But even though she faces long odds running against popular incumbent Bill Haslam, Infante is a woman with an established history of doing what she wants, whether it be running for mayor on a shoestring, earning her law degree at the tender age of 60, or founding a touring bluegrass outfit with almost no prior musical experience.

â“If it feels right, do it; thatâ’s my credo,â” Infante chuckles, seated in the front hall of her home/campaign headquarters in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood, a cozy pastel-hued cottage still cluttered inside from her cross-country move. â“After I moved back to Knoxville, I saw that the current mayor was running for reelection unopposed. I had a notion based on this vague democratic principle that people should have choices, that candidates shouldnâ’t run unopposed. So thatâ’s what propelled me to run, and here I am.â”

Haslam, for his part, has already extended a welcoming hand to his unlikely new opponent.

â“We met for breakfast about six weeks ago,â” he says. â“And she seems like a very nice lady. We made the decision early on that weâ’re going to focus on what weâ’re trying to do, rather than on negativity.â”

Infante has no expressed qualms with the Haslam regime; rather, she sees the mayoral race as an opportunity to â“share my ideas about how a city should function for the benefit of everyone living there.â” The watchword for her campaign is â“openness,â” in the form of a more open, accessible mayorâ’s office, and a more open city budget.

â“The city budget is this mysterious thing that is made public, a public document that you get online,â” she says. â“But it is not very comprehensible. I want to go through that budget, open it up so everyone understands where their tax money is going, create a structure where citizens can have more input about where their money goes.â”

She describes the mayorâ’s role as â“that of a facilitator, not a dictator.â” Her other talking points include the need for more development in neighborhoods outside of downtown; enhancing economic development by recruiting more environmentally-friendly business interests; and bringing the artsâ"via theaters, galleries, and performance venuesâ"to all parts of the city.

â“Iâ’ve promoted the idea in my speeches of â‘one neighborhood called Knoxville,â’â” Infante says. â“Itâ’s amazing how the same problems crop up north, south, east, and west. They want the basic necessities, a healthy, happy family, and then on top of that they want the second level, the art and the self-expressive things, the things they can afford after the necessities are taken care of. We should find out what the people in our communities want, and we should provide that for them. Thatâ’s the mayorâ’s job.â”

Infanteâ’s candidacy is unlikely in nearly every respect, beginning with the details of her personal history. She was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican motherâ"she still speaks with just a hint of her native Spanish, really more of a suggestion of an accent, with crisp, precise enunciation. She talks a great deal with her hands, constantly clasping and unclasping wispy digits, punctuating statements with knee pats and stabbing index fingers.

Her family came to Ellis Island in 1945; she moved to California at age 16, then to Canada, and back again. She earned degrees in Political Science; a Bachelorâ’s from University of California at Santa Cruz, a Masterâ’s at Yale, and a Ph.D. from UC at Riverside. And she was introduced to the real world of politics in 1968, when she went to a state convention and was elected to the steering committee of the California Peace and Freedom Party.

â“That got me actively involved,â” she says. â“Since then, itâ’s been hard to live in a place and look around and not want to do something.â”

Or some things, as the case may be. Infanteâ’s resume in the years since reads like it was compiled from those of at least four other people: She spent time as a union organizer in the â’60s; she owned a handful of SoCal-area fabric shops throughout the â’70s; she worked as a consultant with USAID, a government agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide, andâ"for one yearâ"she was a member of a White House special interdepartmental task force on women for the Carter administration. Her supervisor in the latter endeavor was Sarah Weddington, a young Texan who made her name as a winning attorney in Roe v. Wade in 1973.

And, of course, thereâ’s her academic career, which ended in 1986 when she stepped down as a dean at State University of New York in Manhattan, under most unusual circumstances.

â“I was traveling to USC to study with a noted political economist, as part of an award I won as a teacher,â” she remembers. â“I was driving cross-country, and stopped one evening when I saw a sign that said Bluegrass Inn Club. I thought, â‘I wonder what that is?â’ So I stepped inside the club and before I sat down at a table, I thought, this is what I want to do with my life. I heard those strings from the bluegrass band on stage, and that was it.â”

Infante went to California and finished the seminar, came back East and promptly turned in her resignation for the following academic year. Then she packed her bags and moved south, to a little shack on an unincorporated piece of land 75 miles west of Nashville. The nearest grocery store was in Camden, some 30 miles away.

â“I was out in the country; I didnâ’t know anyone; and I didnâ’t know anything about bluegrass,â” she says. â“What do I do? So I took a map, made a hundred-mile circumference circle, and went to every single little-town newspaper and put out an ad looking for female bluegrass musicians.

â“I started interviewing people, and I got six of them; the Sugar Tree Bluegrass band, and we traveled all over the country in a van for about three years.â”

Infante played standup bass in Sugar Tree, an instrument on which she had no previous experience. â“Everyone else was a talented multi-instrumentalist, and I had no other experience, other than playing a little rhythm guitar,â” she remembers. â“So we had a band meeting. They said, â‘Weâ’ll find someone to teach you the bass.â’ They found an old-timer in Camden who had been playing 50 years. He gave me three lessons, and then I took the stage in a Nashville club for our next show. I think I knew three chords, and I was scared out of my mind. It was real on-the-job training.â”

Infante calls the period of her life that began with her foray into bluegrass as her â“second career, in the creative arts.â” After Sugar Tree disbanded, she moved to Knoxville, where she wrote short stories, dabbled in various martial arts (a fancy that carried over from her young adulthood), and worked in local theater. Perhaps most memorable was a one-woman played she wrote, directed and starred in entitled Las Cucarachas, which she first performed at the University of Tennesseeâ’s lab theater. The play was about cockroaches, and her lab theater performance led to invitations to perform it in several other venues, including a playhouse in Budapest, Hungary.

â“I played nine characters, all cockroaches,â” she explains. â“Weâ’re all head of some sector of society, like the Roach Churches of the World, or the United Roaches of America, and weâ’re traveling to a world summit. By the end of the play, all of the roaches have gained insight and reached moments of wisdom and all that.

â“I wore a roach costume that has pockets inside, and as I became each character, I would turn away from the audience, go back stage and pull out a prop and become the next roach.â”

Her creative period ended when she moved back to Boston to pursue a childhood dream, enrolling in law school at Northeastern University. At age 60, she was the oldest member of her graduating class, though perhaps youngest at heart.

â“When I was 13, I said I wanted to be in politics and then law,â” she says. â“So after I did the academic career and another career in creative arts, I said let me go revisit my dream and see if itâ’s still alive. I thought, if the dream is no longer there, Iâ’ll leave law school. If itâ’s there, lurking in the recesses of my mind, Iâ’ll stay. And sure enough, there it was.â”

After graduation, she says she chose Knoxville as the city where she would take the bar and establish roots as a practicing attorney, in large part because Knoxville had been â“the place where I had the most fun, where I felt the most comfortable, welcome, and at home.â” She relocated in early 2006, but has since seen her studies for the state bar exam interrupted by her impromptu run for office.

Whether she has a legitimate shot at upsetting a well-regarded sitting mayor is a matter for some debate, but Infante is convinced sheâ’s moving in the right direction. Her campaign is a quintessential grassroots effortâ"a 30-person crew of volunteers who attend public meetings, man the phone banks, and canvass door to door. Their efforts are funded entirely by private donations; Infante includes her home phone number and personal email address on posters and campaign literature.

â“At first I had no name recognition,â” she says. â“But things have gained momentum, and Iâ’m finding that my chances are quite good at this point, and getting better by the day. Because my home number and email address are out there, people are calling me directly and sending me snail mail packages and email, discussing their problems.

â“Our committee, weâ’re kind of a little microcosm of whatâ’s happening out there. People seem to be uniting for change. People arenâ’t talking about Iâ’m a Republican or Iâ’m a Democrat, theyâ’re saying I want change. Thatâ’s why I feel good. A month ago, no one had heard of me, no one was asking questions or anything. And now they are.â” â" Mike Gibson

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