African immigrant defies rising nativism to become US citizen and mayor

World Today

Wilmot CollinsIn a Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 file photo, Wilmot Collins, newly elected Helena, Mont. mayor, speaks with the press in his Helena, Mont. home. Fifty years to the date after the nation’s first black mayor was elected to lead a large American city, voters in more than a half-dozen large and small cities chose African-American candidates as mayors on Tuesday. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

President Trump has taken his rhetoric against immigrants to new heights. But one immigrant-turned-politician is trying to change the conversation in the state of Montana.

Wilmot Collins came to the state as a refugee from Liberia. One year ago, he defeated a four-term incumbent to become mayor of Montana’s capital city. CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy has details.

Wilmot Collins may be the most unique politician Montana has ever seen. Never, growing up in Liberia, West Africa, could he have dreamed that one day he’d be in charge of a city in America.

“People look up to you and people want you to be available to serve them,” he said.

His path to City Hall in Helena, Montana, population 31,000, began when he fled civil war in Liberia on a cargo ship a quarter-century ago.

“When we got to the port, the line to get on board the ship was more than a mile long,” he recounted. “It was estimated that 10,000 Liberians got on board that vessel. At the initial start of the trip, we didn’t even know where we were going.”

His wife, once an exchange student in Montana, had won a scholarship to go to college in Helena and was already there. Collins was granted refugee status to join her.

“Things just took off,” he said. “We never looked back.”

Collins joined the U.S. military.

“This country offered me and my family a second chance at life. The very least I can do is give back.”

He had always wanted to run for public office but didn’t take the plunge until last year, when his son challenged him to follow through and his friends backed him up.

“And that’s how we started the ball rolling and before I knew it, I was knee deep in it,” he recalled.

He credits years of community involvement for helping him oust Helena’s four-term incumbent mayor, and win a spot on this wall of people who’ve led the city.

“There was no moss under my feet,” he said, in describing how hard he worked during the campaign. “People really did know who this person was, even though he wasn’t born here but he’s a part of this community. It played a really big role in people trusting me, and here I am.”

The Montana gold rush put Helena on the map some 150 years ago. It was one of the wealthier cities around by the late 1800’s. Today, the gold is found in the leaves and funds for city services are at a premium, which is why, shortly after he took office, Collins asked voters to approve a property tax hike to bolster the Helena Fire Department’s budget.

“We knocked on doors, we did everything and it passed with 70 percent,” he said.

This 55-year-old still works a full-time job in addition to his part-time mayoralty. He’s not one to sit idle.

“Busy, busy,” said Helena City Clerk Debbie Havens. “It’s amazing how many requests he’s gotten. He travels almost every weekend.”

At a time when refugees and immigrants have come under criticism in the U.S., in a state, Montana, where less than half of one percent of residents are African American, Collins says personal connections have been key to his success. Get to know your people, he says.

“When they get to know you, all that hype and misinformation goes away. My election is evidence of that.”

Three years remain in Collins’ mayoral term, to address homelessness and other pressing issues. As for his political future, that may defy prediction too.

“I don’t know,” he laughs. “I’ll have to answer the call of the people.”