Helena mayor reflects on journey that started as refugee
Jan. 06, 2018
GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — There's probably not a lot of elected officials in Montana who can say they got a congratulatory call from the president of Liberia's family a few days after an election win.
But that's what happened to Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee who was elected mayor of Helena in November.
The call came from a son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Collins said, who told him "his mom was very proud of me."
"That meant a lot to me," the 54-year-old Collins said over a cup of coffee on a recent Sunday in his Helena home.
Not only was Collins' win big news among the Montana and Liberian media, but made headlines nationally and internationally as well.
The election victory is something Collins said he is still coming to grips with.
He said the name "Donald Trump" never came up once on the campaign trail, but yet his election was heralded as a rebuke of the president.
"When I knocked on those doors, Trump didn't appear," he said.
Collins is reportedly not only Helena's, but Montana's first 'official' black mayor. However it's noted that a black man named E.T. Johnson served as mayor in 1873 before Helena became an incorporated town in 1881.
"It was an unofficial title," said Ellen Baumler, interpretive historian with the Montana Historical Society.
Collins won Nov. 8 over four-term Mayor Jim Smith, who Collins said was a popular incumbent, garnering about 51 percent (5,147) of the vote to Smith's 48 percent (4,803) or a lead of 344 votes.
Collins, a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the decision to run was not a lark as he strives for public service.
"I've always served my community," he said, adding that six months after coming to Montana in 1994 he joined the National Guard. He's coached soccer, is an adjunct professor and served on several community boards.
Collins knew he had a formidable opponent.
"I wanted to win," Collins said, but was reminded by a donor who approached him at a fundraiser that it would be a daunting task.
"I'm going to give you some money, but you can't win over Jim," Collins recalls being told. "But what gave me a glimmer of hope is when I outraised (Smith). There was some light at the end of the tunnel. I thought I could win it."
Collins said he joined with city commission candidates Andres Haladay, an incumbent, and Heather O'Loughlin on a progressive ticket. All three won.
O'Loughlin said the three talked with residents about how to move Helena forward.
She said they heard "that they want a city commission that will focus on the day-to-day needs of the community, while also thinking longer-term about the vision of Helena and the concrete steps we must take to get there."
Collins said his research had shown him the city was short on emergency responders. He met with firefighters who told him they had seven people per shift who handled more than 5,000 calls in 2016.
In 1978, six people per shift handled 302 calls.
Of those 5,000 calls, there were 75 that firefighters were unable to respond to at all.
"I thought the public should know that," Collins said. "I don't think anyone in Helena should call firefighters and not have them show up."
Collins said there are some federal funds available that would provide Helena with more emergency personnel for three years, then the city has to pick up the tab.
He said that gives the city three years to work on a way to take it over.
Police have also told him they were short staffed as well. And he said when he asked the chief what the department needed he was told "qualified police officers."
"We can't sit back in our community and let it be unsafe," Collins said.
Collins said that may bring some unpopular proposals, such as a levy.
"Do you want a safe community?" he asked, adding he did not want to have someone call 9-1-1 and not have help show up.
Another issue was homelessness.
For that, he has no solid answer.
Collins said he is now engulfed in studying the city budget, familiarizing himself.
Shortly after the election, Collins said Smith called and congratulated him on his win.
"Jim's a decent person," Collins said, adding that Smith offered to help with a smooth transition.
"That's Jim," Collins said.
Collins, whose parents worked for Firestone Natural Rubber Co. in Liberia, said politics in Liberia is a sea change from the United States.
"It's really different," he said. "Growing up in Liberia you knew who the president would be.
"My perspective here is that with dedication and work it pays off," Collins said. "But in Liberia it doesn't matter how hard you work, you know who the winner will be."
Collins and his wife Maddie met while attending the University of Liberia and decided to leave the country in the 1990s during civil unrest.
Collins had lost two brothers, one was murdered by rebels and the other was killed by soldiers.
One was beheaded and the other was shot as he sat in his truck.
"You do not know who you are dealing with, so depending on your answer you do not know if you will live or die," Collins said.
During her high school years Maddie had been an exchange student and had stayed with a Helena family, Bruce and Joyce Nachtsheim, who she calls "mom" and "dad." The Collins decided to make Montana their home.
Carroll College gave her a full scholarship to pursue nursing. Wimot stayed behind, taking a couple years to go through the process to emigrate.
Bruce Nachtsheim remembers Collins telling him a story from Liberia about coming across a person who had been killed.
When asked if he thought Collins would seek elective office someday, Nachtsheim said "I don't know if I envisioned that, but I've always seen him as an individual that if there is a problem, he tries to solve it."
"Was it a surprise to me (he ran) yes, but was it a surprise to me he won, nope, he was out there knocking on doors," Nachtsheim said.
Collins is in a state which as of 2016 had a black population of 0.6 percent.
He said someone once pointed that out to him on the campaign trail by saying "you know you're black?"
"Yes, I know that," Collins responded.
But Collins said his election victory is not about race.
"The people of Helena have taken me as I am," he said.
Years ago someone painted KKK on his garage. It was a neighbor who let him know.
Collins saw the markings and went into the house to call police. By the time he came outside, neighbors had washed the walls clean.
"Racism is everywhere," Collins said. "But how your neighbors react is what makes all the difference."
He and his wife have two children, daughter, Jaymie, 25, who is in the Navy in Florida and son, Bliss, 21, who is a senior at the University of Montana.
Although the mayor's race in Helena is nonpartisan, Collins said his progressive attitude tipped his hand that he is a Democrat.
He has been called to Washington, D.C., to meet with Democratic leaders.
But he said he has no political aspirations beyond Helena.
"I never thought about it," he said. "Now I just want to fulfill my obligation."
Collins also has spoken to students in Helena school classrooms about his experiences as a refugee.
He enjoys reading the thank you letters he received from the class.
Collins said he would share his experiences with anyone wanting to listen.
"I will shout from the mountain top," he said.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com