Helena, Montana, elected a refugee from Liberia as mayor on Tuesday in a tight race in a conservative state with a history of tensions over refugees.
Wilmot Collins, who arrived in Helena 23 years ago, unseated the mayor of 16 years with a progressive message. The Huffington Post and MSNBC have reported that Collins appears to be the first black mayor in Montana’s history.
Refugees have sparked political tension in the state, which came to a head in the 2016 governor’s race when Missoula’s mayor and city officials backed an effort to bring refugees to the city.
Despite the drama, Collins has had a message of hope for other refugees in the state, telling them they need “thick skin,” but that there are “more decent people in this state than there are racists.” According to reporting from Public Radio International, Collins and his wife were largely welcomed in their community, but on one occasion, their home was vandalized with the letters “KKK” and graffiti telling them to “go home to Africa.” He told PRI in 2016 that he felt at home in Helena and that he was hopeful that with greater education about refugees, the Montana public will become accepting.
Helena’s elections are nonpartisan, but Collins, a 54-year-old child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, leans Democrat and has voiced views critical of Donald Trump. The citizens of Helena “are not looking at color, at background and creed,” he told the Huffington Post. “The country is still not what Mr. Trump wants it to be.”
You can hear more from Collins in the episode of Slate’s Placemakers about refugees in Missoula, Montana, from September 2016.