To become Colorado’s first openly gay speaker of the House, Mark Ferrandino had to overcome learning disabilities, harassment, and prejudice. But will leading the Legislature be his toughest challenge yet?
Two decades ago, Colorado became known as the “hate state” for passing Amendment 2, which, in the interest of promoting “family values,” repealed laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals. (The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the amendment.) In 2006, voters struck down Referendum I, a law that would have established domestic partnerships, while passing Amendment 43, which added a section to Colorado’s Constitution defining marriage as “the union between one man and one woman.” Our state also is home to nationally known groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Institute (FRI), both of which have long tried to limit the LGBT community’s political clout.
Colorado’s evolving tolerance hasn’t swayed their mission. Paul Cameron, the chairman of FRI—which the Southern Poverty Law Center designated as a “hate group” in 2010—told me in an email that “those who engage in homosexuality are consumed by their sexual addiction, cost society more than they contribute, seldom produce children for our future, and injure the demographic by getting other people’s children to participate in their sexual habit. In line with their reduced life spans, as politicians they tend toward near-term, freedom-reducing, oddball causes and rent-seek for their tribe. Colorado will discover whether Mark Ferrandino fits this mold.”
Partly inspired by the civil unions setback, Colorado Democrats funneled their anger at these “conservative” worldviews into electoral wins last November, helped significantly by ardent campaign-trail volunteers. Chief among their legislative advocates was Ferrandino, who since 2007 has gone from Colorado Young Democrat of the Year to ranking Democrat on the Joint Budget Committee to House minority leader, and now to speaker, without basking in the same limelight that some of his colleagues enjoy. “We just wouldn’t stop working between [May] and the election to make sure we won,” Ferrandino says. It paid off on November 6. Democrats claimed many competitive races in Colorado, garnering a 37-28 majority in the House and paving the way for Ferrandino’s nomination. “It was just like chess,” he says. “A game of strategy, that’s what politics is—do we have enough pieces to win the majority? How do we make sure of that? We got more than I expected.”
As fired up as Ferrandino might have been during the campaign, it’s his measured demeanor that spurred Democrats to tab him as their leader. Jack Pommer, a former colleague of Ferrandino’s on the Joint Budget Committee, says Ferrandino’s “very practical” style will be an asset. “He looks at issues and doesn’t come to them with a huge amount of ideology,” Pommer says. “[He] keeps his mind open to various solutions.”
Then again, although bipartisan consensus is something Ferrandino says he wants, given that his party now controls the Colorado Senate, House, and Governor’s Mansion, it’s no longer something he needs. Each issue will be a new chess match, and each one should, theoretically, be winnable for Ferrandino given his party’s advantage. The spoils of the speakership dictate that Ferrandino assigns chairs and co-chairs to committees and also distributes bills to heighten the likelihood of their approval or rejection. “There’s a real possibility of stacking the deck,” says John Straayer, author of The Colorado General Assembly and a political science professor at Colorado State University. “[The speaker] can pretty much determine the outcome of certain pieces of legislation.”
Someone else might be tempted to steamroll his opposition, but that’s not Ferrandino’s way. To him, such heavy-handedness would defeat the purpose of this institution he has studied, mastered, and even revered since he first saw a Sunday morning news show. “There’s a lot of cynicism around government,” he says. “And if I can lessen that by making more people confident in and trusting of the institutions of government, and by showing people that we can still work and have input from the Republicans and different interests—that would be a huge accomplishment in itself.”