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?
The Monday after Ferrandino’s first week as House speaker, I receive a two-pronged message: to “bring foldable money” when I visit the Capitol building the next evening, and to “be prepared to lose it.”
Poker night has resumed in the Legislature, a regular gathering that brings Democrats and Republicans to the same table for inside jokes and lighthearted derision. When I arrive at Ferrandino’s office, he’s dressed casually in a button-down shirt, open at the collar and tucked into jeans. He’s seated at a green oval poker table that nearly fills his office, with nine seats and plenty of elbowroom. On a table behind him rests a handmade chess set his sister brought him from Peru, its pieces—Incas versus Conquistadors—aligned for battle. For the moment, it’s just me, Loveland Republican Brian DelGrosso, and our host, discussing the enormity of this poker table.
Ferrandino sets up the game with precise and slightly nervous energy. He shuffles two decks and stacks the chips for each player, squinting through his glasses as he counts them. The open beer in front of him appears untouched, though that may be on purpose. Ferrandino notes that the calories in brews add up; the more he drinks, the harder he’ll have to hit his Lose It! regimen tomorrow.
The other legislators trickle in, exchange their cash for chips, and then either take a seat or meander to the corner of the office, where four bottles of whiskey and one bottle of 303 Vodka reside. Once everyone’s seated and the cards are about to be dealt, Ferrandino looks at me with a grin and says, “OK, so we’re off the record now, right?”
I agree. Although the content of the evening’s conversations won’t be repeated, the atmosphere is jovial and smoothed by Scotch as the stacks of chips rise and fall. McNulty and Ferrandino dig into each other about issues they disagree on, then laugh off their differences. No one gets too deeply into policy details; they use these gatherings to blow off steam together—the better to avoid ugly fights in the House once it’s time to debate the touchier subjects.
Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat, plays like a kamikaze pilot, always betting the highest value chip he has. Another Dem, District 30’s Jenise May, is the first woman to play in some time. DelGrosso is the quiet grazer in the corner, slowly getting his fill of everyone’s money without making a scene about it. McNulty plays a fittingly conservative hand, save for random bursts of going all in. It works—most of the time. As Ferrandino once told me during a discussion about civil unions, “Frank plays politics like he plays his poker. Sometimes he has a hand and he goes all in. Sometimes he doesn’t, and he still goes all in.”
The new speaker is, in a word, aggressive. Whatever his aims might be for running a “kinder and gentler” administration, they don’t apply to Texas Hold ’Em. When he has cash, he wagers it. Tonight, it gets him into trouble: He’s the first out and one of the only ones to buy back in. For now, at least, the Republicans like the way Democrats redistribute income.
Poker, Ferrandino tells me later, is about anticipating how people will act in tricky, sometimes emotional situations, while chess, his other strategic love, is about seeing moves several steps ahead of the opposition. Ferrandino stays in the game on this night, primarily to figure out how to play a better hand the next time around. “Ultimately, you’re trying to weave your way through all the different possibilities to be victorious in the end,” he says. “That’s very much like politics.”