In Montana, A Liberian Refugee Mounts A U.S. Senate Challenge

Oct 9, 2019
Originally published on October 9, 2019 12:20 pm

In the early 1990s, Wilmot Collins and his wife, Maddie, escaped the Liberian Civil War. Broke and starving, they ended up in Helena, Mont.

"Why do you think we fled?" Collins asked. "We fled because we wanted a second chance."

Soon after moving to their first home, a neighbor knocked on their door and alerted Collins to hateful graffiti outside his house.

"On my wall was 'KKK, Go back to Africa,' " Collins said.

This wasn't the first racist threat he had received since his resettlement in the U.S. and Montana. But ironically this moment, nearly 25 years ago, was when he knew Montana would be his home. That's because that same morning, a brigade of neighbors showed up to help them clean the graffiti.

"People always say, 'Oh man, you know you're in Montana, do you experience racism down there?' " Collins said. "I say, 'Yeah, but how your community reacts to what happens will determine whether you belong or not.' "

Instead of moving, he and Maddie stayed and built themselves a new life. Collins started working as a janitor at a school, then became a substitute teacher, and eventually a social worker. On the side, he coached soccer and served on the United Way and other local boards. His wife is a nurse at the local VA hospital. They raised two children in Helena.

His son, who went on to study political science at the University of Montana, urged him to consider entering politics not long after President Trump took office in 2017.

Collins' rise was fast. Later that year, he narrowly defeated Helena's entrenched mayor (the race is technically nonpartisan, but both men are Democrats), making history by becoming the capital city's first black mayor since its incorporation. Now he has his eyes on a higher position: a U.S. Senate seat that Democrats had previously held for nearly a century before losing it in 2014.

Between his job, family and mayoral duties, Collins squeezes in every minute he can to campaign.

For Collins, the strategy is to meet as many people as possible and make connections on common issues such as trade and student loan debt. His scope isn't just Democratic-leaning towns like Helena but also rural, conservative-leaning farming towns.

"The last thing I want to dwell on is race. It's divisive, and I don't want to deal with that," Collins said.

But he has had to. When Trump tweeted that four Democratic lawmakers of color should "go back to the countries they came from," Collins' possible opponent, Republican Sen. Steve Daines, heartily backed the racist tweet with a pledge of support on his Twitter account.

Collins says the men showed their true colors.

"He's trying to say because they're black and brown, they need to go back to Africa, where I'm from," Collins said. "But that's wrong. I'm an American. I've served this country honorably."

Staff for Daines did not make the senator available for an interview. In a statement, a spokesperson said Daines "looks forward to having a thoughtful discussion with Montanans on how to best protect our Montana way of life."

While Collins is considered a long shot, his campaign is not going unnoticed in an overwhelmingly white state that Trump won by more than 20 points. Montana is also the least black state in the country, according to recent census figures.

"As a historian, I'm absolutely delighted, because this opens up a whole conversation about the history of race in Montana," said professor Tobin Miller Shearer, who runs the African American studies program at the University of Montana β€” the third-oldest such program at a public university in the country.

Professor Tobin Miller Shearer runs the African American studies program at the University of Montana β€” the third-oldest such program at a public university in the country. "As a historian, I'm absolutely delighted, because this opens up a whole conversation about the history of race in Montana," he said.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

Shearer believes Collins' run will force Montanans to confront β€” and discuss β€” what has been a long and violent history of racism and KKK activity in the Northwest.

This largely white region has been a hotbed of extremism for more than a century. Hate group monitors such as the Montana Human Rights Network are reporting a recent spike in white nationalist sentiment and recruitment, particularly in rural areas, since 2016.

The group's co-director Rachel Carroll-Rivas says that Collins' candidacy is being met with excitement and anxiety.

"I think there's a reason to be concerned for the safety of people of color, including immigrants right now in Montana, in the Pacific Northwest and across the U.S., because of the vitriolic scapegoating of immigrants and brown folks by activists and elected officials," Carroll-Rivas said.

She believes that Collins is doing precisely what he should to respond to hate: being out in the open, surrounded by friends.

At least in Helena, that's easy. Collins appears to know just about everyone.

"I think it's time that somebody steps up to the plate to bring some civility back. I think it's time that somebody who wants to represent the whole of Montana steps up," Collins said.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, the mayor of Helena, Mont., has ambition. Wilmot Collins is now running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, which is only the latest step in a remarkable story, which we will tell this morning. Long before he ran for office, Wilmot Collins fled Liberia's Civil War. He arrived in Montana as a refugee. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Helena.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the early '90s, Wilmot Collins and his wife escaped the Liberian Civil War, broke and starving. They ended up in Helena, Mont.

WILMOT COLLINS: Why do you think we fled? We fled because we wanted a second chance.

SIEGLER: Not long after they moved into their first place on their own here, a neighbor knocked on the door one morning, alerting them to hateful graffiti outside. It wasn't the first racist threat Wilmot had received.

COLLINS: And on my wall was, KKK. Go back to Africa.

SIEGLER: But ironically, it was this moment nearly 25 years ago when he knew Montana was home. That same morning, a brigade of his neighbors showed up to help him.

COLLINS: My neighborhood got together and washed my wall down. People always say, oh, man, you know, you're in Montana. Do you experience racism down there? And I say, yeah, but how your community reacts to what happens will determine whether you belong or not.

SIEGLER: So they stayed. He started working as a janitor, then a substitute teacher and, eventually, a social worker. He also coached soccer and served on the United Way board. He and his wife raised two kids here. They served in the military. His wife is a nurse at the local VA hospital. They're a refugee success story.

COLLINS: People always afraid of the unknown, and because they don't know, they tend to latch onto what they know. So how do you break that? You break that by telling them, hey, this is who I am. But until you do that, they don't know.

SIEGLER: Two years ago, Wilmot Collins narrowly defeated Helena's entrenched Democratic mayor. Now his eyes are on the U.S. Senate. Between his job, his family and mayoral duties, he finds every minute he can to campaign.

COLLINS: Hi. Wilmot Collins.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nice to meet you.

COLLINS: Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, this is my friend Rose (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You go to my church, Life Covenant Church.

COLLINS: I go there every...

SIEGLER: Walking downtown Helena, he says his strategy is to meet and make connections on issues like trade and student loan debt with as many people as possible in Democratic-leaning towns like this but also rural conservative farming areas.

COLLINS: The last thing I want to dwell on is race. It's divisive. I don't want to deal with that.

SIEGLER: But he's had to. When the president tweeted that four Democratic lawmakers of color should go back to where they came from, Collins' possible Republican opponent, Senator Steve Daines, heartily backed that racist tweet. Daines tweeted himself, quote, "Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite radical Democrats trash our country." Collins says the men showed their true colors.

COLLINS: He's trying to say, because they're black and brown, they need to go back to Africa, where I'm from. But that's wrong. I'm an American. I've served this country honorably.

SIEGLER: Daines' office did not make him available for an interview. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the senator, quote, "looks forward to having a thoughtful discussion with Montanans on how best to protect our Montana way of life." Senator Daines may be keeping a low profile because he can. The primary isn't even until next June, and Collins is a longshot candidate. Still, a Liberian refugee running for Senate in the state with the smallest black population in the country isn't going unnoticed.

TOBIN MILLER SHEARER: Well, as a historian, I'm absolutely delighted because this opens up a whole conversation about the history of race in Montana.

SIEGLER: Professor Tobin Miller Shearer runs the African American studies program at The University of Montana. He says it will force a conversation about a long and violent history of racism and KKK activity in the Northwest, a history that's finding new life today.

SHEARER: Mayor Collins will always face the reality of his race in this state and any state in this country, but particularly here because of the ways in which the white supremacy movement has begun to try to put on a civilized and acceptable face.

SIEGLER: The Montana Human Rights Network has been tracking a rise in white nationalist sentiment and recruitment in the rural Northwest since 2016. The group's Rachel Carroll-Rivas says Wilmot Collins' candidacy is being met with excitement but also anxiety.

RACHEL CARROLL-RIVAS: I think there is a reason to be concerned for the safety of people of color, including immigrants, right now in Montana and the Pacific Northwest and across the U.S. because of the vitriolic scapegoating of immigrants and brown folks by activists and elected officials.

SIEGLER: But Carroll-Rivas says Mayor Collins is doing exactly what he should to respond to hate - be out in the open, surrounded by friends.

COLLINS: Hi. Hey. How you doing? (Laughter).

SIEGLER: And at least in Helena, it seems like Collins knows pretty much everyone.

COLLINS: I think it's time that somebody steps up to the plate to bring some civility back. I think it's time that somebody who wants to represent the whole of Montana steps up.

SIEGLER: I know I'm the underdog, Collins told me, adding, but that makes me work harder in these unpredictable times.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Helena, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "MANDARIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.