Feature

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.”

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.”

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.

“Who’s Jon?”

“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.”

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.”

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.”