Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia who became the first black mayor in the state, announced Monday he is seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Steve Daines.

Collins and his wife Maddie moved to Helena in the early 1990s to escape civil war in the African nation — she with a scholarship to study nursing at Carroll College and he a few years later after going through the refugee process.

He expressed gratitude to the Helena community for welcoming his family.

“You taught me the value of working hard and the unwavering importance of reaching out to my community,” he told about 100 people who gathered in downtown Helena. “Most important, you gave my family an amazing life, which is why I wake up every morning finding new ways to serve and exemplify my eternal gratitude for this great state and nation.”

Collins, his wife and daughter served in the U.S. military and his wife has been a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Helena for more than 17 years.

“The spirit of Montana is what led me to spend half of my life, half of my career, working with underprivileged children and families, to provide them with that opportunity you provided me 25 years ago,” said Collins, a child protection specialist with the state health department.

He said his appreciation led him to run for mayor of Helena in 2017, where he ousted a four-term incumbent for the part-time, non-partisan post.

His election made national news and was featured on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

“Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned as a public servant is to always listen to your constituency,” he said. “This is the difference between being a politician and being a public servant.”

His key issues are access to affordable health care, addressing homelessness and health care for military veterans, strengthening the middle class and providing adequate resources for the military, law enforcement and firefighters.

“And folks, today we face an imminent environmental crisis, unlike anything we’ve seen,” Collins said. “Montana, I’m asking you to believe in the boldness and the urgency that it will take to fight climate change. I’m asking you to believe in science. Please.”

Collins is the first candidate to challenge Daines in 2020.

Sen. Daines “looks forward to having thoughtful conversations during this campaign on how to best protect our Montana way of life and create good-paying Montana jobs,” said Julia Doyle, a campaign spokeswoman.

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