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?
Mark Ferrandino was born alongside his twin sister, Nicole, in August 1977 in Nyack, New York. Sharing his mother’s womb led to complications that deprived him of oxygen and led to various learning disabilities. His parents, both New York City educators, soon noticed that Mark was advancing more slowly than his sister, and getting him the necessary help meant he had to attend a different school—the self-described kid on the “short bus” sent off to special education classes.
Ferrandino attended speech therapy, had thought-processing and reading-comprehension difficulties, wore ridiculously large glasses, and suffered from strabismus (crossed eyes, for which he’s had surgery twice). His differences meant he was regularly bullied, and his most vivid memory of the tormenting happened in fifth grade. While riding the bus, a kid stole his glasses and threw them out a window. Ferrandino got the driver to stop, and—after pawing through the roadside grass, practically blind—he only found the frames when the bus backed up and he heard the crunch. “I came back with my glasses in my hand, shattered,” Ferrandino says. “You know you’re in this place where you’re not the same as every other kid…it’s why most special ed [programs have] stopped doing these self-contained classes. It’s very traumatic.”
Around this time, Ferrandino gradually integrated into regular classes. He picked up the trumpet and joined the school band. He started making friends and slowly shed his outcast status. And though he still had learning disabilities, there was never any doubt about his intellect. “Mark always had to work harder than other people to do things because of the challenges he had,” says his father, John Ferrandino. “He’s always known that you have to do your homework, be disciplined, stay focused; you can’t fly by the seat of your pants. Or at least, he never could fly by the seat of his pants.”
Ferrandino tried playing baseball as a kid—his older brother had played and his father had coached—but everyone agrees he was terrible at it. “Mark wasn’t a good baseball player, but everyone liked him,” John says. “They gave him an award for being the best teammate.” He later found a sport he could excel at, and some of his lifelong friends, on the track.
When he wasn’t making forays into sports and music, Ferrandino kept returning to politics. While his elementary school peers fantasized about becoming firemen or doctors or ninjas or pirates, Ferrandino was enamored with public policy. At 10 years old, he told his father he wanted to be a senator someday, and on Sunday morning, rather than watching cartoons, Ferrandino was transfixed by Meet the Press and The McLaughlin Group. He loved the data, budgets, and debates; the leather chairs and suits and ties; and the “great process of elections to help decide who’s going to be in charge, and then the process of legislation that allows for the fine-tuning of policy.” His heroes weren’t athletes or pop stars; they walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol and the White House. While his brother Michael read novels, Mark read the newspaper, and he enjoyed debating his grandparents, both Limbaugh-loving conservatives. (Ferrandino’s passion endures to this day: The political veteran Pommer describes legislative work as often tiresome and occasionally “oppressive” and “ungodly.” Ferrandino calls dealing with such wonky minutiae “the most fun I’ve ever had.”)
After high school, his learning disabilities no longer much of an issue, Ferrandino enrolled at the University of Rochester. He double-majored in political science and economics and completed a master’s program in public policy—all in five years. He later lived in Washington, D.C., on multiple occasions, once to intern with former Congressman (now Senator) Charles Schumer, and later as a policy analyst for the White House Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He moved to Colorado in 2003 and became a senior budget analyst for the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing before getting elected to the state House in 2007.
Ferrandino’s twin sister, Nicole, who came to Denver in 2010 and is the director of engagement for the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care, told me that her brother always was a “nauseatingly” good kid: Well-mannered. Considerate. No recreational drugs. No tattoos. No vices that could haunt him once he got into politics. “He just kind of stayed away from it all,” she says. “He was like, ‘Why would I want to give anyone ammunition to use against me later on in life?’ ” But even though there was no Clintonian “I did not inhale” controversy for Ferrandino to dodge, being a gay man seeking office offered enough of a challenge.
The future politician had a girlfriend from late in high school through his first year of college. When they broke up, Ferrandino tentatively came out as bisexual to some of his close friends because, he says, “I wasn’t ready to say the actual words—that I was gay.” After that, it was time to tell his family. He was living in Washington when Nicole visited from New York. “We were having a great time, hanging out, and he was showing me around the city,” she says. “He was on the phone talking to somebody at his house, and I was like, ‘Hey, who are you talking to?’ ”
“Jon,” Ferrandino said.
“My boyfriend. We’re having lunch with him tomorrow.”
Thus concluded their discussion of Mark’s coming-out. The three had lunch the next day, and then she boarded a train at Washington Union Station and was gone. “I think he did it that way so that he didn’t have to gauge my reaction or have to explain it,” Nicole says. “It was like, ‘You’re my twin sister, you are going to accept this for what it is, and we don’t need to talk about it.’ And I don’t think we ever did really talk about it back then.” Mark says this was because he’d always assumed she’d be supportive. “There’s no one closer to me in my life than my sister,” he says, “and she had said many things to me [before then] that made me think she already knew.”
Ferrandino’s progressive-minded parents were both accepting and supportive, even though they knew being gay could potentially complicate his political ambitions. “I know how mean people can be,” John says. “I didn’t want my son hurt. I didn’t want him to expose himself to the criticism and the hate-mongering that were possible.”
But instead of fear, John’s son found motivation and inspiration in the kind of hateful tragedies gay people face. On a frigid October night in 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was drinking at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. Later that night, two men he’d met at the bar drove him to a remote plot outside the town, robbed him, tortured him, and tied him to a buck fence. Shepard hung there in freezing temperatures for 18 hours, so battered and tangled within the fence that the first passersby mistook him for a scarecrow. When rescuers finally found him, his face was still caked in blood—except, reportedly, for where his tears had washed it away. For five days Shepard survived at a Fort Collins hospital before finally succumbing to his injuries.
Ferrandino was attending the University of Rochester when the incident occurred. “When that happened,” he says, shaking his head, “…it’s scary. That could happen to anyone. I knew I needed not just to be involved in Democratic politics, but I needed to be involved in LGBT politics as well.” The school held a candlelight vigil for Shepard the night he died, and hundreds of students attended. “To see that kind of support for someone who was gay and murdered halfway across the country,” Ferrandino says, “was, for me, very impactful.”