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?
On a cloudy December afternoon, Ferrandino answers the door of his red-brick home in Baker. He’s in track shorts and a T-shirt and is holding Lila, his one-year-old foster daughter who “never sleeps,” while an irate, 11-pound Shih Tzu seems to be readying herself to wage war against my shins. I’m obviously inside the house of a new parent. Ferrandino and his partner, Greg Wertsch, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security, have been caring for Lila for only five months. Her stroller is in the middle of the hallway. Blankets and baby and dog toys litter the couches, and binders and books are piled on the end tables. It’s not that it isn’t clean; it’s just lived-in and a little untidy.
Ferrandino repeatedly calls the dog’s name, Dagny, with increasing volume, to distract her from nipping at my legs. Then to me, he says, “Greg wanted a cat. I wanted a beagle. So we compromised on a Shih Tzu.” (Dagny, it should be noted, is named for Dagny Taggart, the powerful, beautiful heroine who rails against government regulation in Ayn Rand’s capitalist opus Atlas Shrugged. Although it’s an odd tribute for a Democrat to make, it’s Ferrandino’s favorite book. But he’s a fiscal budget guy, a numbers geek, and the novel, he says, is “a fascinating story with this strong undercurrent of economics.”)
He wraps Lila in a blanket and puts a tiny beanie on her head—Nicole calls her brother “a ridiculously amazing father”—before strapping her into the stroller and heading out for our run. For about a year, Ferrandino and Wertsch have been following a program called “Lose It!”—better known by Ferrandino’s staffers as “iAnorexia” or “iVomit”—in which he tracks his calories (no more than 1,600 a day) and exercises vigorously. He runs four to seven miles, six days a week, and lifts weights twice or more weekly. He’s lost 35 pounds in the past year and now sports an angled jawline and no signs of his formerly doughy midriff.
As we jog along the Baker area streets, strangers greet us with surprised recognition, followed by big smiles. “Mr. Speaker!” they say. “Happy holidays!” At Broadway and 6th Avenue, a constituent identifies himself as the president of the Colorado Senior Lobby and asks for a 30-minute meeting. “Definitely,” Ferrandino says. “Just email me. We’ll get it done.” He stops several more times along the route, always politely, if a little distracted by his Lose It! requirements. “I hate stopping because it screws up my time, to see how fast and far I run,” he says.
We’re only averaging a 9:15 pace per mile, so he speeds up while giving me his perspective on this year’s legislative issues. Civil unions are but a slice of his agenda. Longmont voted in November to ban hydraulic fracturing within the city’s limits, and now the city is being sued. Some people are terrified their guns will be taken away, and others are terrified there’ll be more guns now—and in schools, no less.
Like most officeholders talking to members of the media, Ferrandino has a tendency to stick to hazy, political nonanswers. On gun-control legislation: “People have a right to bear arms, and we have to live up to and protect the Second Amendment. That being said, simple safety measures should be in place. I know what my gut tells me, but I don’t know how that looks, how that bill would be written. Until you see a bill you don’t know where you’d be on it.” On fracking: “We need to allow for oil and gas [exploration], but we have to do it while we protect air quality, water quality, public safety, and other industries like tourism and agriculture.”
He’s less malleable in other areas. Ferrandino believes in using universities as incubators for innovation and startups. Because a growing body of research has concluded that early-childhood learning is a decisive predictor of post-secondary success, funding and expanding early education, along with providing affordable access to college, figures prominently on Ferrandino’s agenda. And regarding civil unions, he believes the word “marriage” has a religious connotation and is therefore irrelevant in the eyes of government. Civil unions are about a “contract” of commitment, not religion, he says, and religious institutions have the right to neither recognize nor perform same-sex marriages. But government has an obligation to provide full equality under the law. (At press time, the 2013 civil unions bill was expected to become law in Colorado by May 1.)
The issue this lover of political line-items has been most passionate about is, in fact, the payday lending industry. Payday lenders offer short-term loans at interest rates as high as 400 percent, and they often charge exorbitant fees. This creates a cycle of debt for clients that can be impossible to overcome. “I just saw so many people being taken advantage of and wanted to right that wrong,” says Ferrandino of his adopted cause. It was another game of chess that he began in 2008 by trying to force a cap of 36 percent on payday interest rates, back when “the payday industry lobbyists thought they could roll a freshman legislator,” he says. The lenders thought they had all the Republicans and at least one Democrat on their side, and heading into committee, the lobbyists were confident that Ferrandino’s bill was dead.
What they didn’t know was that the day before, Ferrandino talked to Republican Victor Mitchell, “a financial guy who understood that maybe these lenders weren’t completely honest, and they might need some more regulation.” On the morning before committee, the two drafted an amendment to include some of Mitchell’s concerns. In exchange, he flipped his support to Ferrandino. “Unbeknownst to anyone, Victor and I quietly told some members right before committee, ‘There’s an amendment coming from Mitchell. I support it, and I need you to vote for it.’ ” Ferrandino’s supporters agreed, and the bill passed out of committee. Seeing the stunned looks on the lobbyists’ faces when the bill passed, says Ferrandino with a mischievous smile, “was very nice.” It ultimately took three years—and many fierce negotiations—before the bill passed. (“I blew up several times at some members,” Ferrandino says. “I can have a temper. I’m still an Italian from New York.”) It’s the one bill for which Ferrandino keeps a folder of commemorative news clippings, and displayed above his desk is a placard declaring victory over the payday lending industry.
Even with the occasional blowups and vehement debates that permeate politics, Ferrandino is known for his uncanny ability to disagree without deeply offending anyone. Pommer says that even on the Joint Budget Committee—in which “you piss off so many people by cutting or not approving their budget, or become so wonkish that you don’t really like dealing with other departments”—Ferrandino maintained friendly relations with his colleagues. “I felt like I was burning bridges while he was out advocating for what he needed to advocate for, but not ticking people off,” Pommer says. “I’m not sure how he did it, but he did.”
Ferrandino’s openness to compromise and eschewal of rigid ideologies have earned him red and blue friends alike. What few and relatively minor complaints there are, held by colleagues such as House Minority Leader Mark Waller—a “Colorado Springs Republican,” as Ferrandino underlines—are aimed more at the Democratic caucus than at Ferrandino himself. Where they might disagree is over the speaker’s poker-playing abilities: Waller says Ferrandino is “absolutely terrible,” but outgoing Speaker Frank McNulty isn’t so sure. “We get along fine except when Mark is taking my money,” McNulty says. “At that point I don’t like the way Democrats redistribute incomes.”