Posted by Guest on April 02, 2018 in Blog

By Laura Neumayer

Teresa Isaac always dreamed of serving her community after watching her father serve as Mayor of Cumberland. While her father chose the political route, the Isaac family has inextricably linked itself to the history of eastern Kentucky through the arts. Emigrating from Lebanon, her grandparents arrived during the peak mining years in eastern Kentucky to pursue a better livelihood. In an effort to entertain the community, the family used their creative strengths and talents to open a theatre, which proved to be an immediate hit with miners and their families in what precious downtime they had. Each of her grandparents’ children-- all seven of them-- picked up where their parents left off, running theatres. The family rapidly wove itself into the fabric of life in Kentucky, and those intertwining tales eventually culminated in Isaac’s father, and eventually Isaac herself, representing the interests of their communities.

With these humble beginnings, a family flourished and in the process created the next generation of  impassioned public servant.  Isaac worked tirelessly throughout her collegiate years, graduating from Transylvania University magna cum laude and later obtained her law degree from University of Kentucky College of Law. Isaac’s dream of eventually giving back to her community began to come to fruition in 1990 when she began serving as a member of the Urban County Council. From there, she was elected to serve as Lexington’s vice mayor, and as Assistant Fayette County Attorney. From 2003-2007 she served as Mayor of Lexington, and during this tenure the city was ranked in a five-way tie as the safest city in the nation.

As Lexington’s rapid urbanization and economic development continue, she finds particular importance in balancing this new stage of Lexington’s evolution. Diversification, to Isaac, is fundamental, but so are community members. Lexington, famous as the horse capital of the world, relies heavily on adequate land for horse farms and breeders, many of whom are Arab Americans. She believes it is possible to meet this balance in the city and appease the needs of a vibrant economy.

Isaac maintains pride in her heritage even in the face of criticisms. With her extensive experience in hand, Isaac first ran for mayoral office in 2002, shortly after 9/11. This timing coincided with poor public attitudes towards Arab Americans and American Muslims, and Isaac received pushback for her ancestry and association with both communities. The issue became so pervasive during her campaign that she was even asked to return donations from supporters with Arab or Muslim identities, but Isaac staunchly refused. She recognized then, and now, that her Lebanese roots are interwoven with the rich history of Kentucky, and did not waver amidst the noise. Isaac won the election and served as Mayor of Lexington from 2003-2007.

After the election, the Department of State took time to bring attention to Isaac’s first mayoral victory and acknowledge Isaac’s heritage, publishing the election results and corresponding announcement in Arabic. Isaac has worked as a consultant with the Department of State, a role that allows her to meet with elected officials around the world to share her successes, failures, and overall lessons learned as a public servant. In 2004 and 2005, she traveled to Argentina and Chile with these lessons, guiding local mayors in best governing practices for their own cities. Her consultancy provided her with a platform to bring change to her home community, and also to serve in the international sphere.

Throughout her career, Isaac’s leadership style has emanated support and inclusion. During her tenure as Mayor, she especially encouraged the inclusion of Arab Americans in political life. If any constituents felt misrepresented or discriminated against, she sought to meaningfully engage them in local governance in order to improve government practices and its response to constituent needs. In 2016, Isaac was honored with a portrait unveiling in recognition of her outstanding contributions to Lexington and the global community. Now in 2018, Isaac remains true to her values of inclusion and engagement by welcoming volunteers to her campaign from all backgrounds---political, ethnic, or otherwise. “When you’re a leader, it’s important to include all parts of your community,” reflected Teresa Isaac on her first term in office. She carries her sentiments of diversity and inclusion forward into Lexington’s upcoming mayoral race. With the encouragement of community members, she agreed to put her name back on the ballot.

Isaac’s love of her community and appreciation for Kentucky’s open embrace of her family has never wavered. Her grandparents’ experience as immigrants instilled in her not only a desire to serve, but compassion for those struggling or without a platform in the community. “You have to have a good heart,” to be an effective leader, Isaac believes, and being trusted with such a role is not something to take for granted. “It’s truly an honor to serve people in your community.”

Laura Neumayer is a spring 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.