Hal Colston
Newly appointed Rep. Hal Colston, D-Winooski, waves to a supporter before taking his seat in the House chamber at the Statehouse Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

[G]ov. Phil Scott has appointed Winooski City Councilor Hal Colston to fill an open seat in the Vermont House.

Colston, a Democrat who will sit on the Government Operations Committee, was sworn in Wednesday after weeks of uncertainty over who would serve as Winooski’s second House representative.

Longtime Winooski Rep. Clem Bissonnette announced in December that he would be retiring and not returning to the seat in January. This came after Bissonnette had previously said he planned on retiring two months ahead of the election, and discouraged voters from casting ballots for him.

Colston, former executive director of SerVermont, a commission that administers community service programs throughout the state, ran a write-in campaign for the seat.

But Bissonnette ended up winning the election as the only candidate on the ballot and briefly changed his mind about retirement — until he changed it again in January, leaving it up to the governor to appoint his replacement.

With the vacant seat having been held by a Democrat, Scott had been expected to select a Democrat to fill it and he announced Tuesday he had chosen Colston.

Hal Colston
Rep. Hal Colston, D-Winooski, is embraced as he takes his seat in the House Wednesday.  Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Colston had been recommended by Winooski’s Democratic Committee and received 945 write-in votes to Bissonnette’s 1,290 votes in November.

“Hal has dedicated much of his life to public service and improving the lives of people in his community,” Scott said in a statement.

“As a city councilor and executive director of SerVermont, Hal has made it his mission to advocate for equity and justice for all, and I look forward to working with him in the Legislature,” the governor said.

Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, a former state representative from Pittsford and Brandon during the 1990s, was also vying for the governor’s appointment, and argued that her views were closer to those of Bissonnette, a moderate Democrat.

Colston said that ahead of his appointment, he and the governor had a meeting last week.

“He was honest, one of the other candidates really aligned with his policies,” Colston said Wednesday, referring to Cleveland Vitzhum. “But he decided to choose me.”

“I think he thinks I’m a level-headed, decent guy,” Colston said, “and I think my character spoke and he wanted me to work with him.”

Colston said that like the governor, he hopes to help reverse the state’s struggling demographic trends by bringing more people into the workforce.

Diana Gonzalez
Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P/D-Winooski. Courtesy photo

One of his priorities in the Statehouse will be to pave the way for immigrants with advanced skills to enter the job market in Vermont. Winooski is one of the state’s most diverse communities.

“It’s going to be critical in the near future, in terms of our tax base, if we don’t have enough people employed. And yet we have these wonderful neighbors who are known as new Americans with all kinds of skills,” he said.

“So how do we figure out a way to certify them to do the important work that’s needed to be done,” Colston said. “We have engineers and doctors and so on, professional people who end up in entry level jobs.”

The other seat in the district is held by Diana Gonzalez, a Progressive/Democrat, who said that with the appointment of Colston, Winooski is likely the first House district in Vermont to send two people of color to the Legislature.

Gonzalez is Latina and Colston is African-American.

“The fact that there’s two people of color representing one district is probably also unprecedented,” she said.

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories...