The Dealmaker

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?

March 2013

The gold dome is teeming. It’s January 9, 2013, the first day of Colorado’s legislative session, and everyone in attendance gives off the earnest sense that they’re about to witness history. Young men who look like Esquire models—with slick hair, slick blazers, and the illusion, at least, of self-possession—stride the halls at a pace that suggests they’ve somewhere important to be yet still will arrive fashionably late. Men and women speak in whispers as they dole out handshakes and greetings: It’s so nice to see you again! It’s so exciting, isn’t it?

Inside the House chamber, the session opens with serenades from the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus before the formalities begin. Exiting Speaker Frank McNulty directs the action, and the Republican wields his gavel one last time like the hammer of Thor. He slams it down so hard at one point that he knocks the sounding block clear off the table. He’s not actually upset; that’s just his style.

McNulty is about to cede the gavel to Mark Ferrandino, at which point Ferrandino—a Democrat budget and finance wonk representing the 2nd District—will become Colorado’s first openly gay speaker of the House. Not long ago, an amicable transition was almost inconceivable. In the final days of the 2012 session last May, the civil unions legislation that Ferrandino had co-sponsored with state Senator Pat Steadman withered and died. As gay rights activists and supporters watched from the visitor’s gallery, Republican lawmakers led by McNulty employed stall tactics to kill the bill, despite knowing it had enough votes to pass. The filibuster nixed civil unions and took some 30 other bills with it. “My heart was pounding out of my chest,” says Ferrandino, who at the time attempted what’s been described as a “palace coup” to get the bill called for debate. When his efforts failed, boos rained down from the gallery toward the GOP. People chanted, “Shame on you! Shame on you!” and one protester yelled, “I hope you fucking die!”

As of today, all is forgiven, if not forgotten. McNulty and Ferrandino have their differences but, as politicians do, they try to keep policy separate from their friendship. They will always agree that each of them, as Ferrandino says, “wants the best for the people of Colorado.” It’s no trivial concession because there are myriad issues besides civil unions that this Legislature must address: To wit, later today outside the Capitol building, twin rallies will be staged to usher in the new session—one an anti-fracking protest, the other in favor of preserving gun rights.

In short, there’s bipartisan work to do. As Ferrandino is officially nominated, McNulty’s final bang of the gavel welcomes the new speaker, and the chamber erupts into a standing ovation and extended applause from both sides of the aisle. His acceptance speech includes warm greetings and thank-yous, along with a couple of fence-mending cracks about McNulty and the House members’ mutual adversaries in the Senate. In the middle of all the formalities, a glowing Ferrandino admits, “This is the greatest honor of my life.”