One encouraging result in this year's election was Wilmot Collins becoming the Mayor of Helena, Montana, replacing a four-term incumbent who had waffled in dealing with the city's Confederate monument. For a long time, my Montana friends have been objecting to their public image as a home for white supremacists (like Richard Spencer, who lived there for a time) and their militias. There are other kinds of people who live in the state, and those people are trying to get through life intact, just like anybody else. To win this election, Wilmot Collins had to take on race issues directly, addressing myths about refugees and the Confederacy.
Why Montana, which wasn't even a state during the Civil War, would have a Confederate monument is troubling, but there it was, hanging out for more than 100 years. While the monument issue helped him, Collins told the Guardian that his focus on pragmatic local issues won him the seat: “They were looking for a change and I came in at the right time. I spoke the language they were looking for.” Still, the race issues were clearly important backdrop to this election.
Specifically, Collins ran in the midst of a furor over Confederate monuments and an onslaught nationally of disinformation over refugees like himself. In his campaign, he addressed both issues head-on. As a refugee who underwent the difficult vetting process, he used campaigning to dispel myths.
The monument topic is complicated, since Montana didn’t become a state until long after the civil war ended. The Daughters of the Confederacy erected a fountain in Helena in 1915, and its racist history was lost on most residents.
Two years ago, the city commission opted to install a plaque explaining the troubled past of the fountain, but Mayor Jim Smith opposed the change. The battle escalated, until the city removed the fountain in August when it became clear it would grow to be a draw for white nationalists. Smith was not available for comment on Wednesday, but his foot-dragging was widely criticized and probably helped lift Collins to victory.