Helena’s city elections may be nonpartisan, but it was the self-proclaimed progressive ticket that went on to victory in November, with the incoming mayor receiving national attention for his unique path to office. 

After coming to Helena as a Liberian refugee more than two decades ago, Wilmot Collins, a child protection specialist for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, entered the race against longtime Mayor Jim Smith. Collins’ platform focused on addressing homelessness among youth and veterans, and he aligned himself with two progressive city commission candidates, incumbent Andres Haladay and newcomer Heather K. O’Loughlin.

The mayor and commission had taken up a number of controversial decisions in recent months before the election. 

Resolutions endorsing the Paris Climate Accord and encouraging normalizing relations with Cuba, along with a resolution questioning a proposed mine in the Smith River watershed, showed some commissioners’ interest in addressing state and national issues. The removal of the Confederate fountain in Hill Park also took heed of a national conversation about the removal of monuments, bringing with it strong emotions.

The initial election night returns put Collins ahead of Smith by a few hundred votes. While several commission candidates jumped in and out of the lead as the results trickled in, Haladay, O'Loughlin and Collins claimed victory at the end of the night. 

Collins' phone started ringing immediately afterward, and he quickly found himself in the national spotlight. The day after the election he did multiple interviews, speaking to The New York Times and being featured on the BBC website.

Wilmot Collins, 54, jokes in his Helena home. Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

While historians say the city had a black mayor before it was incorporated, Collins became the first black mayor of incorporated Helena, which shocked him and resonated in the national sphere. Media outlets across the country asked if his and many other Democratic victories were a referendum on Trump administration policies.

Collins’ status as a refugee had rarely entered the campaign. One of the few times it came up was in response to questions about Smith's comments to a group with anti-refugee ties -- ties that Smith said he was unaware of at the time. 

“Nationally this is a different conversation,” Collins told the Independent Record. “I don’t think the people of Helena were thinking about that. … Helena people were looking at it as the better of two candidates.”

With the newly elected mayor and commission candidates soon taking office, Collins has remained visible around Helena. He still sees homelessness as a major problem facing the city but has also met with various groups such as the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce, and he was recently selected as a guest curator for an art show at the Holter Museum.

The progressive ticket candidates will be sworn in at the Capitol at 10 a.m. on Jan. 2.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin