In his office overlooking Sixth Avenue in Helena, Montana, Wilmot Collins leans back in a chair at his conference table and recounts all of the ways his being here, as a Liberian refugee who in 2018 became the first Black mayor of any city in Montana since the state joined the union, was unlikely to happen.
Perhaps it all traces back to April 12, 1980, when a faction of armed militants in Liberia, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, entered the executive mansion in Monrovia, the nation’s capital, and murdered President William Tolbert. They dumped his body into a mass grave with those of 27 of his colleagues—members of the West African nation’s single-party leadership—ushering in a new era of military rule. Collins was a senior at Carroll High School in Yekepa then, and he remembers the string of killings and atrocities that began shortly after the start of Doe’s rule. “Things were bad,” he told me. They soon got worse. Those years started Collins’s thinking about political systems and how they could be made better—what they might look like if they worked.
After high school, he attended the University of Liberia, where his interest in politics deepened. Specifically, he was fascinated by America’s system. “Professor [D. Elwood] Dunn taught American government; that’s where we learned about Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education; and the system of government intrigued all of us,” he told me. Liberia had a three-branch federal system as well, but studying the clear divisions of power in America captivated him; he imagined a better Liberia.“We had the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary—but the executive was always meddling into every other branch … But then to see that working,” he said, “we had hope.”
Nearly 10 years on, in 1989, his country was on the verge of a second coup. Charles Taylor and his rebel army had been training in Libya and entered Liberia through the Ivory Coast—gaining support along the way from people who had felt left behind by the ever more ruthless military dictatorship. “When Taylor came in with his rebels promising honey and gold,” he said, people thought, This is who we want. But Taylor was a warlord, an ethnic conflict broke out, and Collins eventually fled to the United States.
Collins took some basic lessons from the destabilization of his home nation: the importance of a peaceful, functioning government and the dangers of despotism. It’s wisdom he wishes was not so hard-won, and wisdom he gained only in hindsight. His concern at the time, of course, was escaping.
Twenty-five years after moving to Helena, Collins was serving his first term as the city’s mayor and had eyes on running for statewide office. But then he learned a few more lessons, ones that received only passing mentions in textbooks on American government in the 1980s: that the party system has tremendous influence on who prevails politically. That gatekeeping can exclude candidates who lack the right connections. That hopefuls can have their campaigns smothered by their opponents’ cash.
Collins learned those lessons in his own bid for Senate, a race he was elbowed out of when a candidate backed by the Democratic Party establishment jumped in, only to then lose to the Republican. To Collins, the whole experience was dispiriting. “When the establishment is not in your corner, you will struggle, and struggle raising money,” Collins told me. “I was pissed; I was angry because I didn’t get the support.”
But he still thinks he has a path ahead. He cites a colloquial definition of insanity: “to do the same thing over and over hoping for a different result.” But he hopes that here in Montana he can get a different result.
Liberia began as an idea: that Black people might better prosper in Africa than in the United States. The American Colonization Society sent more than 13,000 free Black people to the west coast of Africa—and though some believed it to be a potential remedy to slavery, it was also a mass exile.
By the time Collins was born, in 1963, Liberia had grown into an independent state. His father was a civil engineer; his mother was the superintendent of schools. “Growing up in Liberia was calm,” he told me. “We grew up just like [in America] basically.” He went to school, played baseball and tennis. Then the first coup happened, then the second. “And life ceased as we knew it.”
On December 24, 1989, the First Liberian Civil War began. Food supplies grew scarce. Each day, Collins or one of his siblings would leave the house to find food, which was concentrated in rebel-held areas. In October 1990, when it was his turn to venture out, he and his fiancée, Maddie Muna, were able to find only a tube of Pepsodent toothpaste.
“They say hunger is the best sauce,” he told me, explaining how he guzzled down half the tube before sharing the other half with Maddie. He furrowed his brow as he related the story, but allowed himself to laugh. “I’m not kidding you, that thing tasted like, Oh wow!” His speech slowed down a little again as he remembered how they were almost killed.
On their way back to his family, they were stopped at a checkpoint by rebel troops. The armed men called Maddie over for questioning first. “Where are you from?” he recalled them asking. “What do you do?” Then they pointed at Collins, who had been standing quietly to the side. “Who’s that? Is that your man?” “Yes,” she replied. “You are very lucky. I’m done killing for the day,” the rebel told her.
They sprinted away. “We ran until we got home; we didn’t stop,” he told me. “I’m talking about three, four miles.” That’s when they decided to leave. “We will die,” he remembers thinking. “We didn’t have any food; we’ve been threatened. We’ve gotta get out of here.” But they didn’t know how difficult getting out would be.
A peacekeeping force, led by Nigeria, was helping Liberians escape on cargo vessels, but the lines were staggeringly long. He and Maddie queued at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Friday later that October—only leaving their spot, in shifts, in order to use the bathroom. Almost three days later, on Sunday, at about 10 o’clock at night, they boarded. Three more days passed before they arrived in Ghana—it had been nearly a full week since they had eaten. “Imagine,” he told me, his eyes welling up, “seven days without food and water, barely drinking. And no change of clothes. Nothing.”
He eventually got a job in Ghana, working for SOS Children’s Villages as a teacher—the same job he’d held in Liberia before the war began. But after a few months, he and Maddie, who’d married at the start of 1991, were still struggling to make ends meet, and Maddie offered a suggestion: They should move to America.
“How are we supposed to do that? We don’t have any money,” he responded. “We’ll go to Montana,” Maddie said. Years earlier she had been an exchange student at a high school in the state, and she thought her host family might be able to help.
She wrote a letter to the family, who contacted Montana’s congressional delegation, including Senator Max Baucus. The best way for Maddie to get back to the United States would be on a student visa. With the delegation’s help, the family reached out to a Catholic institution, Carroll College, in Helena, where they lived. Soon after, she was awarded a full scholarship to study nursing at Carroll. She would once again live with the family that had hosted her. But getting to the States would prove a little more difficult for Wilmot. Two weeks before Maddie left for Montana, the couple learned that she was pregnant; they resolved that Maddie should go ahead. It would take two more years before Wilmot would be able to join his family.
“Welcome to Helena, it’s sunny and warm at 32 degrees,” the pilot said over the intercom on February 17, 1994, as Wilmot’s flight from Salt Lake City descended. He was the last one off the plane, and as he walked into the terminal he spotted a sign that read Welcome home, Wilmot. Carroll College faculty and the institution’s president were waiting for him—there to support his wife and child. “I saw my wife for the first time holding my daughter up, and she put her down and said, ‘There’s Daddy, go to Daddy,’” he recalled. The tears start again as he remembers that day. “So my daughter started to walk towards me … and then she just started to run and I just fell on the ground and grabbed … ”
He stops. It’s still fresh.
“I started screaming, calling my wife. ‘Maddie, Maddie, she came to me! She came to me!’”
They moved into low-income housing around the corner from Helena High School, which Maddie had attended as an exchange student, and began their life in America.
Each day, he’d get dressed, leave their eggshell-white townhome, and turn onto North Montana Avenue—both in search of a job and to acquaint himself with his new home. One day, he explored a bit farther than normal and stumbled upon the state capitol.
He walked inside and was immediately struck by the marble columns and grand rotunda. He marched up the stairs and saw the governor’s office. “And I decided to go meet the governor,” he told me, matter-of-factly. The governor’s scheduler stopped him. “Do you have an appointment?” she asked. When he shook his head, she asked if he’d like to make one and took his information. Then a man came up behind him.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“No, I’m here to meet the governor,” Collins responded.
“Well, I am the governor, Marc Racicot,” the man responded.
Collins was floored. He explained that he’d just come from Africa—that he was a Liberian refugee—and that he was looking for work. He handed the governor his paper résumé, and Racicot quickly phoned his educational adviser, who in turn realized that her daughter and Collins’s wife had a few classes together at Carroll College. Racicot and his adviser told Collins to apply for a job at Intermountain Children’s Home, a mental- and behavioral-health facility for young people, and to list both of them as his references. By March 31—a month and a half after arriving in the United States—he had work. Soon after, he joined the Army National Guard as well.
Over the course of two years, Collins told me, he saw the best of America. Yes, his visa application and resettlement paperwork were held up in bureaucracy, but his application process was helped along by Senator Baucus, a Democrat, and he’d found work through Racicot, a Republican. He saw a system functioning without violence or corruption, and he saw what could happen when politicians tried to help someone.
Collins told me he later realized that not everything was as idyllic as he had wanted to believe—something Racicot’s own trajectory would soon demonstrate. The rising star in the Republican Party was praised by both liberals and conservatives for his hawkish approach to budgeting and his personal touch, and he was so popular that one pollster jokingly suggested he “could run for king.” But just a few years after helping Collins, he was deemed too moderate by the Bush administration to be considered for attorney general. Harsher undercurrents were at work.
Still, Montana proved a soft landing ground for Collins, and the assistance he received from Racicot and Baucus helped solidify the raw idea about American politics that he’d had in Liberia. They were models of the kind of leader he was starting to think he might one day become.
On February 10, 2007, Barack Obama traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to announce, on the steps of the building where Abraham Lincoln began his political career, that he would be running for president of the United States. He spoke of Lincoln’s fortitude. “He tells us that there is power in conviction,” Obama told the crowd of 17,000. “That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there is power in hope.”
Ten days later, Wilmot Collins awoke to the words KKK: Go back to Africa scrawled across the side of his house in spray paint. He was scheduled to testify at the state capitol that day about a bill that would have expanded the definition of hate crimes in the state. His mailbox had been destroyed before; his car had been set on fire. According to a report from The Great Falls Tribune, his then-14-year-old daughter regularly heard racial slurs; and his 10-year-old son, Bliss, no longer wanted to go to school. “They shouldn’t have to go through that,” he told lawmakers at the time. “Please, for decency’s sake, let’s do something now.” But he was heartened by how his neighbors had rallied around him each time something like that happened. He had seen Helena at its worst; but he’d seen his neighbors at their best.
In 2016, as he was staring down retirement from the National Guard, he began to look around for what to do next. His son, then a junior at the University of Montana, was visiting home from school and asked what Wilmot might do with all of the free time he would soon have. “I’ll never have free time, because your mom will make me work,” he told me he joked at the time. “But why are you asking?” Bliss suggested that he enter politics. “Dad, I know you. You know a lot of people; a lot of people know you—I think you’re ready.”
Eventually, Collins was persuaded. The first order of business was to figure out what his platform would be. He began knocking on doors. He needed to introduce himself to people in the community, but he also needed to hear what they were most concerned about in Helena. In those early conversations, three things came up repeatedly: funding essential services such as firefighters, EMTs, and police officers; increasing affordable housing; and curbing teenage and veteran homelessness. Those became his campaign planks. “I always call my issues ‘human issues.’ I don’t call them ‘political issues,’” he told me—a common refrain for Democrats in red states. The mayor’s office is nominally nonpartisan, and a broadly appealing platform was important not only to being elected, but to properly serving his community.
Many Black politicians would find Collins’s goals familiar—a strategy political scientists call “targeted universalism.” In a city like Helena, which is more than 90 percent white, candidates like Collins need to find ways to appeal to a broad swath of the public. When candidates travel to the rural outskirts—or the wealthier suburbs—of their district or city to campaign, they have to align their messages to the interests of those communities. But that does not have to mean compromising a candidate’s own beliefs. Instead, as Ravi K. Perry, a political scientist at Howard University, explained to me, targeted universalism is the practice of making clear to those voters why the candidate’s policies—such as a large increase in low-income housing—would benefit the entire community. Even if a person is not experiencing homelessness themselves, or is not in need of low-income housing, many people can understand the ways material improvements to housing and roads in areas that need them can boost the city’s bond rating and may—down the road—contribute to lower taxes, or other opportunities across the city.
Collins also knew that there was power in alliances. He and a pair of city-commission candidates, Andres Haladay and Heather K. O’Loughlin, decided that it would be best to run as a unified bloc—billed in local newspapers as the progressive ticket whose ideas were to the left of the incumbent mayor’s more conservative stances on issues such as Medicaid expansion and public-works projects like fixing roads.
As Election Day 2017 approached, polls had Collins running within a point of Mayor Jim Smith. As votes were tallied, Collins eked out a marginal victory—earning 51 percent of the vote to Smith’s 48 percent—to become the first Black mayor since Montana joined the union. (The election of a Black barber by the name of E. T. Johnson, in 1873, continues to be the subject of some debate among local historians.) Haladay and O’Loughlin won their races, for city commission, as well.
National outlets seized on the story, lumping Collins’s victory together with other elections that they cast as a repudiation of President Donald Trump’s first year in office. But Collins had campaigned on local issues, and he kept his focus on Helena. Alongside the city’s commissioners and manager, his administration began improving roads, provided greater funding to the fire and parks departments to help limit the spread of wildfires, and broke ground on new affordable-housing developments.
Collins had built some momentum: He’d defeated a popular incumbent with an upstart campaign that had generated national interest. His was a story that people could believe in. And he’d never felt more like a Montanan. Perhaps, he thought, a statewide campaign might someday be in order.
He’d learned that the hardest part of running for office was fundraising. “Calling people and begging them, writing people letters—it was hard for me,” he said. “I did that when I was homeless; I didn’t want to do that when I was not homeless.” Without a personal network of wealthy donors, he knew he’d have to get started early. And so, in 2019, nearly three decades after fleeing Liberia, Collins announced that he would be running to unseat Republican Steve Daines in Montana’s 2020 U.S. Senate election.
in July 2019, standing before a group of Democrats assembled for the state party’s rules convention at the Colonial Hotel in Helena, Wilmot Collins wanted to talk about division. “It’s not about Democrat or Republican,” he told those in the ballroom. “That’s what we need to bring this state back to. We’re divided. If I’m representing you, I’ll represent all of you.”
There was no need to explain who he was; by that point, Collins was a known quantity in the state—and nationally. What he really wanted to highlight in his brief remarks was that he intended to be the kind of political leader who cared about people—like those who had helped him come to Montana and get a job to support his family.
But he also wanted to talk about money. “I am you,” he told them. “We’re not rich.” He was painting a contrast between himself and his would-be opponent were he to become the official nominee. In 2018, Daines had a reported net worth of more than $30 million. “Not only the rich should be able to govern,” Collins told the Montana Free Press.
He may have felt personally aggrieved as well. Prior to announcing his candidacy, Collins had met with Montana’s then-governor, Steve Bullock—a Democrat who had launched a presidential campaign—and asked for his blessing to run for office. But, according to Collins, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was convinced that the governor would ultimately run for the Senate seat if his bid for the White House was unsuccessful. “They tried to dissuade me and discourage me from announcing—and I announced anyway, so I didn’t have any support from them,” he told me. (The DSCC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Of course, parties are risk-averse and rally behind their perceived best bets all the time. But that tendency can have the unfortunate side effect of limiting, rather than deepening, the party’s bench, and party leaders’ instincts for who will succeed with voters are not always right. For example, when Jon Tester—Montana’s senior senator—first wanted to run for his seat, the party wasn’t interested, preferring John Morrison, then the state auditor, whose father had been a state-supreme-court justice. “A lot of Democrats tried to dissuade him as well, including people like Max [Baucus], [Chuck] Schumer, and Harry Reid,” Bill Lombardi, who ran Tester’s primary campaign in 2006, told me. But Tester, a farmer who was in his first term as State Senate president, managed to win the primary anyway, and has been popular with voters since, having won his seat three times now. Democrats are hoping he will run again in 2024, in what is expected to be a tough race for the party.
Collins’s appearance before the Democrats in Helena in 2019 was brief, but he laid out the ideas that would underpin his campaign as well as the primary obstacle he would face. Alongside his small team, he began traveling the state to raise money—a difficult task in the fourth-largest state, but a necessary one for a candidate without party funding. He often played to small crowds, even if they weren’t small for the area. “We went to Fort Benton,” he told me, a two-hour drive, minimum, from Helena. “And when we got to the hall, there were 50 people—and I turned to my campaign manager and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’” (A local Democrat later explained that it was the most people that that corner of Montana had seen turn out for someone in their party in a long time.) People would donate $5, $10, $20—anything that might gas up his tank to get him and his team to the next city to continue campaigning. “I raised $350, $400 from that crowd [in Fort Benton], but it really showed me what grassroots campaigning is.”
Over the next several months, Collins raised nearly $300,000. But in December, Bullock dropped out of the presidential race. And in early March, just as America began to implement restrictions to stem the coming surge of COVID-19 cases, the governor called Collins and asked for a meeting. They met at the governor’s mansion for lunch. “He told me, ‘Things have changed. I’m planning to get back in the race.’” In the 24 hours after he made his announcement, on March 9, Bullock raised $1.2 million; quadruple the amount that Collins had raised in nearly six months.
Bullock was someone whom party bosses were excited about. He had already won statewide office, and he was the kind of centrist that Democrats believed Montanans could get behind. But that wasn’t enough—he lost by 10 percentage points, sending Daines to the Senate.
Was Montana destined to vote for Daines regardless of who was on the Democratic ticket? Or, in a year when Democrats won the White House, retained control of the House, and got to 50 seats in the Senate, could a different candidate have earned a different result? If not for gatekeeping, would a candidate like Collins, a refugee who had served in the military for two decades before ascending to the mayor’s office in a city where only a handful of people look like him, have won? Bill Lombardi isn’t sure. “There aren’t a lot [of Democratic candidates] rising to the top who can bridge the rural-urban divide” in the state as well as energize Montanans who have simply soured on the Democrats’ brand, he told me. Candidates need to be able to show they’re willing to buck the party, and party favorites may not be the people most likely to do just that.
Both Collins and Lombardi agree on one thing: Democrats in Montana need more future leaders. “I’ve been asking people, in traveling around the state at different events, ‘Who are the candidates who can reach across the aisle?’ and people are stumped because they can’t think of anyone on our statewide bench,” Lombardi told me.
Collins worries that a lot of young Democrats have been cowed by the party’s rigidity. “I see a lot of prominent, young Dems who want to get into politics who don’t know how—they’re scared,” he told me. If the party does not start training and encouraging them instead of going “back to the same old people who are still losing,” those young Democrats will run away.
A late-summer evening in Helena is unnerving in its beauty. The walking mall down Sixth Street is bustling; patrons sit outside one of the several breweries; remnants of the Pride rally—the largest in Montana’s history—still line the street. On a bench, Collins sips his beer and holds court. Not officially, but everyone here seems to know him.
In 2021, Collins was close to running unopposed for reelection—in fact, in some ways, his tenure has been marked by very little friction, though there are things that residents hope can be improved. Homelessness is still a major issue—one Collins has taken to saying can’t be solved by Helena alone; he has begun calling on surrounding cities for help. On the day before campaign filing closed, he received a challenger, Sonda Gaub. “I wanted a choice, and no one was stepping up,” Gaub told a local television station after her announcement.
Gaub, like others in the city, worried about Helena’s unhoused population. And she sought greater transparency in local government, though, as the Independent Record noted, she conceded that a lot of that transparency work—publicly available meetings where the community could hear directly what went into decision making—was already happening.
Though it was her first foray into politics, her husband, Darin, had run for public office in 2020, and has since become deeply involved in Republican politics in the state. “Here in my small town of Helena, Montana, we’ve got a mayor and a commission that constantly puts us in debt over things we don’t need,” Darin, the chair of the Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee, said on a podcast in August, on which he also made several references to disbelieving the 2020 presidential-election results. (Neither of the Gaubs responded to multiple requests for comment.)
Ultimately, though, a majority of voters thought Collins had done enough to serve a second term, and he was reelected—this time with more than 60 percent of the vote. His campaign was still built around issues that residents felt were most important: fixing roads, making housing affordable, improving wastewater treatment and snowplowing, expanding trails to allow for e-bikes. He’s open to seeking statewide office again, but right now he’s focused on helping train young Montanans to run for office; building a bench for the future through the coalition approach he used to get elected.
After more than 20,000 miles crisscrossing Montana with the hope of a Senate election, he’s back where he feels most comfortable: in Helena. He’s still the guy who fell in love with American democracy in Liberia, and who has had to learn, over and over again, the ways it falls short. But even if he never wins statewide office, he’s part of that system now, and what could be a better testament to its ideals than that?