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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Helena's Next Mayor Arrived As A Refugee From Liberia

Wilmot Collins.
Courtesy Wilmot Collins for Mayor

Helena’s mayor of 16 years was unseated Tuesday by Wilmot Collins, who is receiving national attention for being the first black man elected mayor in Helena since the town was incorporated.

Collins won just over 51 percent of the vote on Tuesday night, defeating incumbent James Smith.

Arriving in Helena more than 23 years ago as a refugee fleeing Liberia’s civil war, Collins currently works as a child protection specialist for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Collins says as mayor he wants to focus on funding the city's essential services - making sure the local fire and police departments are fully staffed, which he says right now isn’t happening. He also has a goal of decreasing the town’s teen homeless population.

Soon after Collins mayoral victory was announced, news of his win spread around the country.

"I ran my campaign for Helena, Montana. I ran my campaign for the issues that are here. And then my son said, 'hey dad do you know that you’re trending now?' And I’m like what are you talking about I’m trending? 'You’ve got 31,000 shares.' And I’m like what are you talking about? 'Thirty-one thousand people have shared your stuff.' I said wow that's huge. And then he comes back,'it's 41,500 dad'."

Collins is the first African-American mayor elected since Helena was incorporated as a town. Some say he is the first black mayor in Montana history, although Montana Public Radio hasn't been able to independently verify that.

Across the county, media outlets and blogs are championing Collins for a groundbreaking victory – winning a mayoral race not only as a black man in a dominantly white state, but also as a refugee.

For his part, Collins has this to say about news of his Election Day win going viral:

"If this national recognition and national attention will help Helena, thank God. If it is going to be in the negative, no I’m not for it, and I will kick against it hard."

According to Montana Historical Society researchers, the first ever elected mayor of Helena was a black man, a barber, by the name of E. T. Johnson. According to historians of the time, even though Helena wasn't officially an incorporated town back then, voters still named Johnson mayor, and  he hung the framed certificate of his win in his barber shop for years. That was in the 1870s.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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