Wilmot Collins knew nothing about cold weather. A Liberian, he had spent his life in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, at age 30, he was escaping civil war and moving to Montana, where his wife had spent a year during high school. So when a relative gave him two pairs of long johns at a New Jersey layover and said, “Put everything on,” Collins did exactly that. “I was the only one on the plane sweating.”
Collins has since adapted to life in America—and then some. Twenty-three years after landing in Helena, Collins was elected the city’s mayor. The night he won—on a progressive platform against a four-term Republican incumbent—a reporter told him he had made history: No black person, let alone a refugee, had ever won a mayorship in Montana.
Collins has never set out to make history. He simply sees politics as an effective way to help his city. “Whatever I can do to make Helena a better place, I’m going to strive to do that,” he says. First up on the agenda: More firefighters, more police, more affordable housing. “This community picked me up when I was at my lowest point. This community did not shy away from me. The only thing I can do to say, Thank you, is to keep serving.”
This community picked me up when I was at my lowest point. This community did not shy away from me. The only thing I can do to say, ʻThank you,ʼ is to keep serving.”
Collins gives frequent talks—often many in a week—detailing just how carefully refugees are screened; his own application took 31 months. “For me, it is very important to explain to people,” he says.
Prior to assuming office, Collins worked as a child protection officer for the state, and as a teacher and a Veterans Affairs administrator. He has been a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve for 22 years, and has completed his doctoral coursework in forensic psychology. His wife, a nurse for the VA, serves in the Army Reserve. His son graduates from college this year. His daughter is on active duty with the U.S. Navy in the Middle East. “We’re service oriented,” says Collins. “Because this country has given so much to my family and other refugees.”