Hal Colston
Winooski city councilor Hal Colston. Courtesy photo

[W]INOOSKI — The city Democratic Committee has asked Gov. Phil Scott to name city councilor Hal Colston to fill the state House seat left vacant by Rep. Clem Bissonnette’s resignation.

The committee recommended Colston — and only Colston — for the vacant seat after party members rebuffed an effort from a surprise challenger, former legislator Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, to also gain their endorsement.

Colston ran as a write-in candidate in the November election after Bissonnette announced he was planning to retire from the Legislature. Bissonnette’s name was already on the ballot, and after he was re-elected, he changed his mind and decided to serve his term.

But Bissonnette changed his mind yet again last month, and decided to step aside and revert to his original plan of retiring to the Northeast Kingdom with his wife. He announced this decision in a brief Front Porch Forum post on Christmas Eve.

On Monday, Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said the governor expects to follow the traditional procedure of appointing a replacement by selecting from names recommended by the local party of the departing legislator.

“Having not received the names yet, it’s difficult to predict a timetable but the governor understands the urgency in ensuring the region has representation during the legislative session,” Kelley said.

Kelley did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on whether the governor was planning on naming Colston to the seat, as he was the only pick of the Winooski Democrats.

Former Rep. Clem Bissonnette, D-Winooski. Vermont Legislature photo

In November, Bissonnette received 1,290 votes to 945 write-in votes for Colston. Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P/D-Winooski, was re-elected with 1,949 votes in the two-seat district.

In a meeting Monday night, the town committee voted 4-0 to recommend Colston and only Colston to the governor.

In September, after Bissonnette announced his plan to resign, the party held a forum for interested candidates to come forward. Of the four candidates who did appear, Colston was overwhelmingly the most popular, said Katherine Picard, chair of the Winooski Democratic Committee.

Picard said that Colston’s support at that forum was a factor in the committee’s decision Monday.
“He’s also been very active in this community for many years,” she said. “He’s earned the right to go and represent our community, and I think he is going to do that very well if he is the person who is chosen.”

Cleveland Vitzthum made her pitch at Monday’s meeting, saying she believed Winooski voters decided to vote for Bissonnette and not Colston deliberately. She said that since Colston ran a successful write-in campaign for City Council early this year, she thought the notion that voters didn’t know how to do a write-in was erroneous.

“I didn’t feel that the voters of Winooski had voted for Hal,” she said. “I felt that they had voted for Clem, and I really felt the governor should have a choice of someone who more closely represents the moderate Democrats that I felt Clem represented in the Statehouse.”

As a representative for Pittsford and Brandon during the 1990s, Cleveland Vitzthum said she represented conservative and moderate Democrats and was ideologically aligned with Bissonnette.

After leaving the Statehouse, Cleveland Vitzthum worked for Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy as a lobbyist in Montpelier and is now the director of developmental disability services for Vermont Care Partners.

Cleveland Vitzthum said that she has submitted her resume and letter to the governor’s office and still wants to be appointed to the seat. She said that she was not surprised that the committee decided not to recommend her as an option to the governor, since she was a stranger to them.

“I completely respect that, but I also felt like it was my duty to let them know what I was doing,” she said.

Colston did not attend Monday’s Democratic meeting as he was at a City Council meeting. Before Monday’s meeting, Colston said he thought Bissonnette’s decision to renege on his decision to resign was a “travesty of the democratic process.”

“I don’t understand why he did what he did,” Colston said. “A lot of people were blown away, this doesn’t make sense, this wasn’t fair, how do we trust this guy?”

Colston missed the post-election orientation for new legislators, and said he was looking forward to hitting the ground running if he is selected.

“There’s a lot to learn very quickly, and if I am to be the person, I want to get in there as soon as possible and get up to speed,” he said.

If selected, Colston said addressing racism in Vermont would be at the top of his priority list. Along with pushing for racial justice, Colston said he would push for legislation that would allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections.

“We’re the most diverse city in Vermont, and it’s growing and growing,” he said. “I want to be a voice for social, economic and racial justice.”

Colston would be the first African-American man to represent Chittenden County in the Legislature. Kesha Ram, a former legislator and Colston’s campaign manager, attended Monday’s meeting and said his appointment would be historic.

“At a time when people are seeking reflective representation in their government, Hal represents someone who has really paid his dues in Vermont, and helped bring communities of color together for over three decades,” she said.

Aidan Quigley is VTDigger's Burlington and Chittenden County reporter. He most recently was a business intern at the Dallas Morning News and has also interned for Newsweek, Politico, the Christian Science...