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Brewer selects a former refugee — and current city councilor — as new mayor

One week after a midterm election that saw immigrant candidates making gains across the state, Brewer's city council chose Soubanh Phanthay, a former refugee and current city councilor, as the next mayor.

The Brewer city council selected councilor Soubanh Phanthay to serve as the town's next mayor.
Courtesy/Soubanh Phanthay
The Brewer city council selected councilor Soubanh Phanthay to serve as the town's next mayor.

Phanthay has served on the city council for three years, including the last two years as deputy mayor, and on Tuesday he received unanimous approval from his four fellow councilors to serve a one-year term as mayor.

Phanthay is originally from Laos, but his family had to flee the country in the turbulent wake of the Vietnam War. Phanthay said he remembers crossing the Mekong River to Thailand on a bamboo raft, and being taken in by Buddhist nuns. His family eventually ended up in a refugee camp.

Then, when Phanthay was about six years old, they were resettled in Houlton.

He said the support he and his family received from the church community that sponsored their resettlement helped plant the seed for his turn to public service, albeit in a different part of the state.

"I believe that is the roots that gave me my desire to serve our community now as mayor," he said. "They showed compassion — love — for people they didn't even know."

Phanthay, who also runs a photography business, sees his trajectory from refugee camp to city hall as one example of the American dream working.

"I want to be one of those examples that people can look to and say, 'Hey, this can happen. This is happening today,'" he said.

And he said he wants his story to inspire others in Maine’s Southeast Asian communities.

"So if it can happen to me, I think there's hope," he said. "So I would love to give people hope that your American dream is still strong."

As mayor, he said he wants to streamline business regulations and improve the city’s public spaces.