HELENA - According to Wilmot Collins, the hours after the release of Tuesday's election results were full of excitement.
Collins won a narrow race to become Helena’s next mayor, defeating four-term incumbent Jim Smith by just over 300 votes.
Since then, he said he’s done more than a dozen interviews, with outlets ranging from local news to the BBC and the Voice of America.
“Locally, I’m fine, I’ve been going around taking down signs between interviews,” Collins said. “But this national whirlwind, it caught me off-guard.”
Collins gained attention for his unique life story. Born in Liberia, he came to the United States as a refugee 23 years ago while his home country was in the midst of a civil war.
Collins said his wife spent time as an exchange student at Helena High School. “When we fled Liberia, she wanted to come to Montana,” he said.
Collins said the host family his wife had lived in Helena helped her get a scholarship to Carroll College. Collins then went through the refugee admission process and joined her in Helena. He added his first time in the area came as a shock.
“I came in February, think about it,” he said. “There was snow on the ground, it was my first time seeing snow, first time being in such cold weather.”
But Collins and his family have been in or around Helena ever since.
“I tell people all the time, 'Helena grows on you,'” he said. “If I were to tell anybody back home that the average temperature here is 42, they’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But it’s not only about the weather. It’s about the people, it’s about the environment, it’s about nature. Helena has so much to offer, and those are the things that have kept me here.”
According to Ellen Baumler, an interpretive historian with the Montana Historical Society, Collins will be the first black mayor to serve officially in Helena, and in the state of Montana.
However, she said Helena residents unofficially chose another black mayor - 143 years ago before the city was incorporated.
“When the city’s bid for incorporation failed in 1874, incorporation opponents framed their own ticket and wrote in the name of E.W. Johnson for mayor,” Baumler said in an email. “The ticket won by a substantial majority, and the election judges issued Johnson a commission certified by the city clerk.”
Baumler cited the book “From the Quarries of Last Chance Gulch” by William Campbell, which said Johnson displayed the certificate in his barber shop and was known as “Mayor Johnson” for years after.
Collins said he wasn’t thinking about making history when he decided to run for mayor.
“We decided to talk to the voters and see what they wanted. I had my issues I ran on,” he said. “And then today it’s national and people are talking about the historical. I’m still trying to take all of this in.”
Collins is a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
He campaigned on issues like increasing funding for police and fire protection and addressing veteran and teenage homelessness.
Together with City Commissioner Andres Haladay and commissioner-elect Heather O’Loughlin, he was part of a self-described “progressive slate” of candidates that swept Helena’s city elections.
Despite the recent attention he’s received, Collins said he’s going to remain focused on working for the city of Helena and for the people who live there.
“If this national attention will put Helena on the map, it’s not a bad thing. If the national attention will bring development and businesses to Helena, it’s not a bad thing,” he said. “But other than that, I don’t really care.”
Collins will be officially sworn in as the Helena’s next mayor in January.