A new lawmaker took his seat Wednesday in the Vermont House of Representatives in Montpelier, after Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, appointed him to fill a vacancy serving the city of Winooski.
“It’s a historic day,” Rep. Hal Colston, D-Winooski, said of his first day on the job, after he officially filled the seat of a fellow Democrat who moved away.
In an interview with necn, Colston called it an honor to become the House’s first African-American man from Chittenden County—Vermont’s population center.
However, Colston said that distinction shows there’s still more work to do around inclusivity in the predominantly white state.
“We’re rapidly changing in terms of our demographics,” Colston said. “In Winooski alone, there’s 17 percent people of color. So we’re changing. And how we do change together, in a more proactive way, and not be divided among the issues we see playing out around the country?”
Colston became one of only four non-white faces in the 150-member Vermont House.
The state made national headlines last year when its only black female lawmaker, Democrat Kiah Morris of Bennington, said racial harassment and threats from a handful of voters made her and her family feel unsafe, so she chose not to seek re-election.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan, D-Vermont, found Morris was the victim of truly repugnant behavior but decided it was nothing he could prosecute—explaining that insults against her race and gender were protected political speech.
Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, who is black, said he’s optimistic Vermonters will pay serious attention to issues of systemic racism, and commit to emerging stronger from an ugly chapter.
“You can see the needle tilting because people are willing to at least talk about their differences,” Christie told necn. “And that’s the only way we’re going to create change.”
Colston’s appointment is a first in another way, he and a new House colleague said. Both of Winooski’s two state reps now reflect its growing diversity.
“Having two folks who have some personal experience around being ethnic minorities, I think can help us maintain our eye on the ways we need to approach things,” observed Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P-Winooski. “And what are the ways we need to have policies that support the most vulnerable?”
Colston said among his top priorities will be a focus on boosting Vermont’s workforce—including better embracing new Americans and their skills.
“Bit by bit, I think we’re going to become like the rest of the country,” Colston said of Vermont’s diversity.