Democrats are seizing on big wins this November as a sign of hope for the future of their party. While it is true the big winners were overwhelmingly Democrats, the elections may have also introduced the country to a new brand of politician.
They’re fueled by their rejection of Trumpism and inspired by their own ideas of what makes America great. Many have never run for office, or even ever considered themselves “political,” but they say they felt called to serve at this moment in history.
They come from diverse backgrounds and have overcome adversity. One is a refugee who fled the civil war in Liberia in the 1990s. He didn’t meet his daughter in America until her second birthday while he waited out the lengthy refugee vetting process. Another candidate, a turban-wearing member of the Sikh community, says his daughter experienced racism for the first time as campaign flyers accused him of “terrorism.” A New Jersey woman, a political novice, decided to stand up and run against a Republican incumbent after he mocked women participating in the Women’s March.
All three emerged from election night with new authority and a perceived mandate for change. They spoke with ABC’s Rick Klein and MaryAlice Parks for ABC’s “Powerhouse Politics” podcast.
The refugee that won over Montana voters
On election night this November, Wilmot Collins became the mayor-elect of a majority-white community in Helena, Montana.
“I looked at my wife -- both of us are refugees -- and we hugged,” Collins told “Powerhouse Politics.” “It was an emotional moment.”
The people of Helena chose Collins in spite of attacks on his immigrant status.
“I was reading the papers almost every day and people were talking about, ‘We can’t have an illegal immigrant running for mayor.’ They didn’t understand,” he said.
Collins went through a lengthy refugee vetting process that took him two years and seven months in order to join his wife and daughter in the United States. He says “the only thing they didn’t do is [cut] me open and look inside of me. ... We’re already doing extreme vetting. The process works.”
Collins has a message for President Donald Trump on immigration: “If I have the chance, I will tell him, ‘I think you got it wrong.’ I would try to explain to him why I think the process he’s using is not in the best interest of the country, rather to a few who don’t want to see this country move forward.”
Collins, who will be the first black mayor of Helena, also advocated earlier this year for a Confederate fountain to be removed after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I don’t want this community to be the breeding ground for white nationalists and white supremacists,” said Collins.
However, he says easing racial tension is not at the top of his political agenda. Working in human services, he’d observed increases in homelessness among teenagers and veterans, as well as short-staffed fire departments.
“Those are the issues that resonated with my community,” said Collins.
Standing up for the Women's March
Ashley Bennett ran and won against a New Jersey county official who mocked women participating in the Women’s March, sharing a sexist meme that read: “Will the women’s protest end in time for them to cook dinner?”
Bennett, a first-time candidate who works full-time as a crisis evaluator for a hospital, says she was first inspired to get active in politics after Hillary Clinton lost the race for the White House in the 2016 election.
“I just knew that Hillary was going to win -- so much so that I went to sleep,” she said.
Bennett said she woke up at 2:30 a.m. to a red map and a new reality.
“I was so shocked, so confused, and that was the catalyst to really get engaged, to understand that all politics is local,” Bennett told “Powerhouse Politics.”
The sexist meme about the Women’s March shared by Atlantic County Freeholder John Carman further ignited that fire.
“The fact that women have worked so hard to be respected ... to just be mocked and belittled like that was just so disheartening,” Bennett said.
“So I wrote him a letter asking with all of the things that were happening in Atlantic County -- high rates of foreclosure, four casinos that are closed, people that are out of work, high rates of poverty, the opioid epidemic,” Bennett continued, “how do you have time to be on social media?”
After getting no response, Bennett attended the next meeting of the county governing board, called the freeholders board. Freeholders serve on a nine-person board and are responsible for legislation in the county. Bennett says Carman responded to her complaint, saying the women he surrounds himself with are strong and were not offended by the meme. That response, combined with presidential election results that left her feeling “isolated and disconnected,” cemented her decision to run.
Now, Bennett says she has a message for women and young people: “If you feel passionate about something and you see that something is not right, stand up and speak out. ... I was the youngest person running for a county seat, in my county, at 32. No political experience, never even had thought about running for political office or being in politics at all.”
She’s heartened by the stories of similar candidates across New Jersey and Virginia.
“What we are seeing is a push back towards divisive rhetoric,” says Bennett. “We are based on respect, inclusion and a sense of community and diversity. ... I am just one small piece of the puzzle.”
The first Sikh mayor in the Garden State
Ravi Bhalla faced ugly opposition during his campaign for Hoboken, New Jersey mayor. Leaflets featuring his photograph alongside a warning about terrorism were passed out in the community. He said it was his 10-year-old daughter’s first experience with racism.
But Bhalla says the incident is not a reflection of the Hoboken community, and the fact that he won there is evidence.
“When I grew up in the public schools, I was the victim of bullying. Kids would tease me because of the color of my skin and the way I looked as a Sikh American,” Bhalla told “Powerhouse Politics.” “Now my son is the coolest kid in the class all of a sudden. That’s kind of neat for me ... [and] hopefully for my son and my daughter and children and minorities across the country.”
Bhalla says he is “honored and humbled” to represent this community, as well as to participate in a larger movement rejecting the current political climate.
“It might not be a statement against Trump as much as it is a statement for America and for our values,” he said.
But Bhalla does have a different idea than the president about what the country represents.
“My father came to this country as an immigrant. We’re a nation of immigrants. He came here with nothing, but he believed in this country if you work hard, believe in your dreams, there is no conflict between being a Sikh and being an American.”
He says he’s prepared to stop Trump if his actions compromise the rights of the people of Hoboken.
“It’s becoming more incumbent on states, as well as cities, to really be that last line of defense to stand up for what our values are and protect our citizens.”
Civility in the resistance wave?
The three politicians featured on “Powerhouse Politics” all expressed a civility that many pundits bemoan as absent in today’s politics, whether talking about their opponents or about Trump.
Despite his strong feelings about Trump’s rhetoric and plans to slash the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., Helena’s mayor-elect says he would welcome the president if he ever wanted to visit.
“He is also my commander-in-chief. I have seven months to retire from the U.S. military, so I would welcome the commander-in-chief and the president of this country into my city and ask, ‘What can I do?’” said Collins.
Hoboken Mayor-elect Bhalla also stresses finding common ground over divisiveness.
“I would extend a hand of friendship. President Trump is an American just like I am,” he says. “We’re part of the same country. We’re part of the same world. I would want to work with him on issues of common concern and common interests.”
As for that candidate sharing jokes about a woman’s role in the kitchen, Bennett says she would sit down for coffee or dinner with the county official she ran against.
“I don’t hate him in any way, because I don’t know him well enough to do so. What I have found is an incredible sense of tone-deafness. Certainly it’s a shame that that exists, and I hope there is some change,” Bennett told the “Powerhouse Politics” podcast. “At the end of the day, he served our country as a veteran and he served our community for 20 years. And that has to have some place of value, and it has a place of value to me.”