The election of Liberian refugee Wilmot Collins as the first black Mayor of Helena, Montana, in 143 years may not have been the biggest progressive victory on Tuesday, but it has significance as another stinging rebuke for the policies of Donald Trump.
Collins, whose day job is with the Department of Health and Human Services, ran against an entrenched incumbent, Jim Smith, with a message that told new refugees that Montana can be a welcoming place, although they will need “thick skin” to get past the minority of bigots – like those who once set his car on fire and painted slurs on his home.
He ran on a progressive platform in the non-partisan race for mayor.
“There are more decent people in this state than there are racists,” Collins told Public Radio International (PRI).
Wow. Meet the first black mayor in the ENTIRE HISTORY of Montana.
Wilmot Collins, who arrived in the US as a refugee from civil war in Liberia, was elected Mayor in Helena, Montana. PROGRESS! pic.twitter.com/hhuzpEsIfp
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) November 8, 2017
That was a clear contrast from Smith, who in September, according to The Montana Post, “was caught siding with one of the groups that was planning and organizing mass rallies directly after the Charlottesville white supremacist rally.”
The group Smith worked with, as he proudly shared on his Facebook page, is ACT for America, which The Montana Post says was “linked to coordinating with what some called neo-nazi groups” who planned to hold rallies in 67 cities across the U.S. that were later cancelled due to a public outcry and the concerns over public safety.
The leader of the group Smith was endorsing was thrown out of the Tea Party for being too extreme, racist and anti-gay, so it is clear what company the mayor was keeping.
Smith has used his platform as mayor to rail against immigration, and promise he will work to keep any new immigrants from coming to Helena.
A progressive Liberian refugee just beat a 4-term incumbent in Helena, Montana, to become the first black mayor in state history.
— Lila Byock (@LByock) November 8, 2017
Helena, capital of the state of Montana, has a population of over 77,000, according to a 2015 census. It is about 93 percent white, 2.3 percent African American, and 2.8 percent Hispanic/Latino with a smattering of Asians and Pacific Islanders as well, as of 2015.
Collins, now 52-years-old, left Liberia 23 years ago with his wife Maddie, who is now a nurse, amid a civil war in that country. They first went to neighboring Ghana in 1990. At the time Collins weighed just 90 pounds and his wife 87 pounds.
“They were starving, dehydrated and sick,” reported Public Radio International. “Both had to be rushed to the hospital.”
They arrived in Helena four years later under a refugee resettlement program. They now have a 24-year-old daughter who is in the Navy and a 20-year-old son who is a sophomore at the University of Montana (and a former high school football player).
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 8, 2017
It was Trump’s executive order at the end of this past January banning immigration from half a dozen predominately Muslim countries that provided some of the inspiration for Collins. He told TV station KRTV that Americans need to learn from history.
“There isn’t any evidence of refugees in the United States actually committing terrorism acts,” Collins told the TV station. “When we label refugees as that we are lying to the world. We are lying to the public.”
Collins said he doesn’t understand what Trump meant when he said there would be “extreme vetting” of potential refugees before they enter the U.S. He said there is already extensive vetting. It took him and his wife two years and seven months to get here.
“The process we have right now works,” said Collins. “When people talk about we need more, we need extreme vetting, but what is it? The extreme vetting you’re talking about is just shutting down the program.”
“We need to give refugees credit because when they come to this country they do interact,” Collins told the Montana TV station. “They are a part of the community and they are a part of the economy.”
When two months after his arrival some of those racists attacked his car and spray painted his home’s walls with KKK and “Go back to Africa, ” Collins at first was fearful, but then he saw that the police and especially his neighbors rallied around him and his family.
“When I saw that,” said Collins, “I was shocked because I had never experienced that before and I didn’t know what to make of it. But when I started processing what went on, I said, ‘Wow, the outcome is good. My neighbors are good people.”
Collins, who also serves in the Naval Reserve, is involved with a number of civic and religious organizations that have worked to bring in new refugees and has helped gain support from local officials.
Collins wants people to know refugees have something to offer.
This past year, the International Rescue Committee opened an office in nearby Missoula for the first time in 25 years (since the Vietnam War era refugee settlements). This time the refugees are expected to come from Syria.
Collins says he wants the new arrivals to know that Montana is a welcoming place, even if they do face some initial obstacles.
“I will tell them that you have to have thick skin,” Collins told PRI. “There will be people that will say things that aren’t true about you. But there are more decent people in this state than there are bigots. There are more decent people in this state than there are racists.”
Collins says “education is the key” to progress: “I went through the bigotry, I went through the racism, and in the end, I stayed here. That means something.”
“I think the Syrian refugees will be accepted,” he added, “but with every initial crisis, there will be a lot of negativity going on. We just have to stand firm and tell the truth.”
It is that truth about his own experiences which he shared with the people of Helena, who have not elected him their mayor.
“Believe me,” said Collins, “I was dying of starvation. The U.S. gave me a second chance. I will never abuse it.”
Despite the lies told by people like Mayor Smith and President Trump, America was largely built by the efforts of immigrants from all over the world. America once prided itself on being a melting pot where everyone could work and live side by side and be rewarded for their hard work, honesty, and loyalty to our democracy.
We have lost that under Trump, who has used immigration and racism to divide us against ourselves, as President Lincoln once put it, and the election of Collins is a sign that the fairness and goodness of the majority of the American people is still in place, even if it gets hidden by the loud shouting of the bigots and false prophets.
The elections in Virginia, New Jersey, Washington state and yes, Helena, Montana, are a sign that the majority is fed up with the small minded, the racists and those who would push us backward instead of forward.
Instead of being among the Bannons and neo-Nazis who want to make this a meaner, more divided, more racist and more dangerous place, Mayor Collins has the potential to be one of those who will light the way to a better America for today and tomorrow.