A week after a midterm election that saw immigrant candidates make gains across the state, Brewer City Council chose Soubanh Phanthay, a former refugee and current city councilman, as the next mayor.
Phanthay has served on city council for three years, the last two as deputy mayor, and on Tuesday he received the unanimous endorsement of his four fellow councilors for 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 to Thailand on a bamboo raft and being picked up by Buddhist nuns. His family ends 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 relocation helped plant the seeds for his move into public service, albeit in a different part of the state.
“I believe it was the roots that gave me the 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 her journey from refugee camp to city hall as an example of American dream work.
“I want to be one of those role models that people can look up to and say, ‘Hey, this can happen. It’s happening today,'” he said.
And he said he wanted his story to inspire others in Maine’s Southeast Asian communities.
“So if it can happen to me, I think there is hope,” he said. “So I would like to give people hope that your American dream is still strong.”
As mayor, he has said he wants to streamline business regulations and improve the city’s public spaces.