Meet The Next Mayor Of Helena, Mont. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia, who was just elected mayor of Helena, Mont., ousting the longtime incumbent.

Meet The Next Mayor Of Helena, Mont.

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There were a lot of firsts in this past Tuesday's local elections, bringing Democrats to power across the country. Charlotte, N.C., elected its first black woman mayor. Hoboken, N.J., elected its first Sikh mayor, also a first for the state. And in Helena, Mont., a first-time candidate beat a 16-year incumbent. Mayor-elect Wilmot Collins ran in a nonpartisan race. But he campaigned on a progressive platform. He's a Liberian refugee, a father of two and a member of the Navy Reserve. And he joins me now from Helena. Welcome to the program.

WILMOT COLLINS: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Congratulations.

COLLINS: Thanks. It's been a long ride.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I can imagine. There are a lot of people who, I think, right now are trying to figure out what these Democratic wins mean for the broader political landscape. I'd like to get your thoughts on why you think you won.

COLLINS: I knocked on doors and I spoke with the voters. And they resonated with my platform. And I guess that was part of the reason I won. And it's also possible that they wanted a change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What platform specifically did you run on? What were you hearing from the voters? And what were you promising them?

COLLINS: I ran on funding, trying to fund the providers of essential services like our police and our firefighters because we realize that there have been many occasions where our firefighters had not been able to answer calls when they were called upon because they were short-staffed. There'd been occasions where they had to delay their calls because they were short-staffed. And so I went out and started campaigning on providing funding for essential services and curbing our veterans and teenage homelessness. And it resonated with the voters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Did you mention Trump? I mean, was President Trump on people's minds, or did you try and avoid it?

COLLINS: You know, it didn't come up once, not once. Once or twice, someone would ask about immigration and refugees. And I would tell them, I'll give them my honest opinion about it and we'll move on. But the president didn't come up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are a former refugee. You came to this country from Liberia. There's been a lot of scrutiny about that process. President Trump has obviously come out very strongly against bringing in refugees from certain countries. He's restricted the number. How did you address that during the campaign?

COLLINS: You know, it came up but not much. But all I have to say is that we're talking about refugees in almost 50 states. And I've been fortunate to have met a lot of professionals. And I'm not going to say all of us were top-notch people. There are going to be some people who will fall by the wayside, who will fall through the cracks. But I've met doctors. I've met nurses. I've met lawyers. I've met teachers. I've met poets. I've met historians. Those are the people that are contributing to our economy. And for you to blanket all of us into one group of undesirables, you know, it's painful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious about how you view the situation in Montana. Montana voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Do you think your election was an anomaly in a liberal enclave, which Helena is? Or can your message reach people on the other side of this divided country?

COLLINS: Yes, I think it can if it's properly portrayed because we - and I always go back to this. We have to educate our constituents.

I've lived here 23 years in Helena. And believe me, I've seen it all. And I can still say that, hey, my community voted me in. It says a lot that people are willing to listen. And people are willing to learn. But who are the messengers? The messengers will have to have thick skin. You will get those insults. You will get everything. But keep your composure. Be patient. And they're listening. But, sometimes, it's hard to accept the facts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you been the subject of attacks because of your background?

COLLINS: Initially. I know when I first moved into this community, we had people mark my home with KKK, go back to Africa. But the one thing - my neighbor who did - they got together and they washed my wall down.

You've seen racist stuff all over the country. But the reaction to mine was unique. And that says a lot about my community. That says a lot about where I live. That says a lot about the people of this Helena community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wilmot Collins, mayor-elect of Helena, Mont., thank you so much for joining us.

COLLINS: Thanks for having me, Lulu.

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