ThinkProgress

He’s a former refugee. He’s black. And now he’s mayor of Helena, Montana.

Voters from precinct 14 in Helena, Montana take time to vote on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in the Lewis and Clark Library. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eliza Wiley

All eyes were on Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday night for their gubernatorial races, but there was also a historic win thousands of miles away in Montana. The capital city of Helena elected Wilmot Collins, a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, as the first black mayor in the state’s 128-year history.

Collins — who fled civil war in Liberia 23 years ago and resettled in the United States — ousted incumbent Helena Mayor Jim Smith by 170 votes in a tight race. Municipal elections are nonpartisan in Helena, but Collins’ policies lean more progressive.

Wilmot Collins, newly elected mayor of Helena, Montana. CREDIT: Wilmot Collins

As a former refugee, Collins has previously talked about how aware he is that U.S.-born residents may believe the negative stereotypes about people like him. Yet nothing about the new mayor has fallen short of being a hardworking immigrant who contributes to the country. He began working at his first job two weeks after he arrived in Helena 23 years ago and has not stopped working. He joined the U.S. Navy and has worked hard to become a U.S. citizen. Now he works to protect children in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“All refugees are looking for is a second chance.”

“All refugees are looking for is a second chance,” Collins told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. “If they could only be granted that second chance, they will prove themselves.”

The topic of refugees and undocumented immigrants may have been a central focus in other nationwide elections, but Collins wouldn’t define his campaign by “picking on [President] Donald Trump.” Rather he focused on tangible issues facing Helena. As a result, he ran his mayoral platform on four main issues: to bring down the city’s high homelessness rate among the veteran and teenager populations; to improve police interactions with the community to heighten trust; to staff up the number of firefighters to increase public safety; and to invite developers to provide low-income and affordable housing.

It did bother Collins that the president criticized refugees, but the new mayor said he focused on the needs of Helena residents instead.

“It bothered me a lot as a former refugee myself to hear some of the things being said about refugees [by Trump],” Collins said. “But what I think the community is saying is, ‘we don’t care about the color of your skin, your creed, your sexual orientation, we are looking for the best possible candidate to move us forward’ and they believed I was the one.”

For his first mayoral duty, Collins is on a mission to find full funding for providers of essential services that improve public safety. The fire and police departments are understaffed, Collins explained, and do not have the necessary funding to field urgent calls. As a whole, the state of Montana is facing $240 million in proposed cuts to the state budget, with the largest cuts apportioned to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, education, and corrections, the daily newspaper Great Falls Tribune previously reported.

Beyond his status as a former refugee, Collins also won’t let his skin color define what people think of him. Through the years, Collins and his family have faced their “fair share” of racism, saying, “people marked our home with ‘KKK’ and ‘Go back to Africa.'” Others tried to burn his car. But because he believes in accepting everyone in the same light that community members accepted him when he came to the United States, he wasn’t deterred to run for office to help all Helena residents, including the people who tried to hurt him.

“When I knocked on doors, the community was asking about issues.”

“When I knocked on doors, the community was asking about issues,” Collins said, pointing out that community members wanted to know more about the substance of his campaign rather than his skin color or immigration background.

“Of course, I had questions like, ‘am I going to make this town a sanctuary city’?'” Collins said, clarifying that he hasn’t thought about the issue since Helena “doesn’t have that problem because the problem doesn’t exist in my community.” Fewer than 5,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state of Montana, according to data by the American Immigration Council.

So-called “sanctuary cities” have been a flashpoint in the immigration debate in large part because they refer to jurisdictions that can choose to restrict its law enforcement officials from detaining suspected undocumented immigrants beyond the scope of their jail term for the sake of turning them over to federal immigration authorities for potential deportation proceedings. While advocates say it doesn’t make sense to detain an undocumented immigrant on behalf of federal authorities on issues like missing a court date, critics have played up racial fears to claim that such policies allow all criminal immigrants to go free. In reality, many “sanctuary” places like California, for example, have enacted policies where the federal immigration agency has to obtain judicial warrants before they ask local authorities to hold immigrants.

Since he won, Collins said he is excited to start “work[ing] for the people of Helena — I’m going to listen to them.” And he has received positive feedback from his opponent.

“[Smith] called me this morning and congratulated me,” Collins said. “He said whatever I need, he will help me through the transitional period. He’s a really, really decent guy. I’m not going to say anything negative about him.”