Colorado’s first gay House Speaker set for historic transition

DENVER — When Speaker Frank McNulty hands his gavel to Rep. Mark Ferrandino on Wednesday morning, flashbulbs and a wave of applause are sure to echo throughout the chamber.

The elevation of Colorado’s first gay House Speaker will be a historic moment for a state 20 years after voters made Colorado “the hate state” by approving Amendment Two.

Moreover, the moment will be ripe with symbolism for all of those who watched McNulty last May, presiding over a slim, one-seat House majority, shut down floor proceedings at session’s end after being out-manuevered in a last-ditch move to avoid an otherwise inevitable vote on Ferrandino’s bill to legalize same-sex civil unions, which had secured enough support to pass.

“We always said it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Well, when is 2013 and we’re going to get civil unions to the governor’s desk early on in the session,” Ferrandino told me last week when I visited him in the Speaker’s office, which he moved into a few weeks back.

The space itself, still missing a desk for Ferrandino that had yet to arrive, is indicative of a legislature in transition.

In November, Democratic statehouse candidates won every competitive seat, stealing back the GOP’s majority and stretching the new Democratic majority to 37-28.

And to Ferrandino, 34, the office last occupied by McNulty is hallowed ground — and an office he never imagined would be his.

“It’s definitely a little surreal,” he told me. “Sometimes I have to sit here and pinch myself. I remember when I first came in the legislature and Speaker [Andrew] Romanoff had this office and it was this awe-inspiring thing to come into the Speaker’s office, because it was the Speaker of the House.

“For me to be able to sit in this office is just an amazing experience.”

Growing up in New York, Ferrandino was an awkward kid with glasses who got made fun of. Born with oxygen deprivation, he attended a different school than his twin sister because he was put into special education classes. And many of his teachers, unlike his parents, sought to lower his expectations about his own future.

“As a kid who was in special education, who had a learning disability, it definitely defined who I am,” Ferrandino said.

“Having people say, well, do what you can, try to achieve, you’re really not going to be able to achieve much because you have a disability — to be able to sit here and now be Speaker of the House, I think it’s an amazing story. It’s thanks to the great public educators and my parents and the support of my family.”

Ferrandino hopes that his ascent to Speaker of the House isn’t just a beacon of hope and source of pride to the LGBT community, but to young, special needs kids like him as well.

“I want to make sure kids who are sitting in the position I was in, who are sitting in special education classes across Colorado, know that if they set their mind to it, if they work hard, they can achieve whatever they want — and don’t let the people who tell them you’re not going to amount to anything, you’re not going to be able to achieve what you want to achieve, don’t let them discourage you. If you put your mind to it, you can really achieve your goals,” he said.

But after the history is made and the hands are shaken this week, the real work will begin.

Ferrandino, who’s represented Denver in the statehouse since 2007, will be challenged as a lawmaker and leader like never before.

Steeped in the nuances of budget-balancing after two terms on the Joint Budget Committee, Ferrandino will be overseeing a caucus full of bright-eyed rookie lawmakers, eager to push partisan policy that may conflict with or potentially confound Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who helped Ferrandino win his new majority last year.

“Our focus is jobs and the economy and education. And that is always going to be our focus because that’s what people in Colorado are telling us they want us to focus on,” Ferrandino said.

With so many new members, Ferrandino and House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, have had conversations about starting slow and giving the 27 new members of the statehouse time to learn the process.

“Incumbent on leadership is to help them learn the process,” he said. “And, no matter what our majority is, it’s about building consensus. We can spend tons of time fighting and bring legislation, sending it to the governor, watching him veto it but, at the end of the day, that does not move our state forward.”

Ferrandino described the 2012 legislative session as a fairly productive and bipartisan one, until the end and the legislative meltdown around civil unions.

In his view, McNulty deserves the blame for the breakdown of the legislative process over civil unions — and, Ferrandino says, a degree of credit for cementing the new Democratic House majority, as many political observers predicted at the time.

“When civil unions fell, and the way it fell, it really angered a lot of people,” Ferrandino said. “When it died the way it did by I think the abuse of power by the Speaker, I think a lot of people were upset about that undemocratic process, and so you saw a lot of emotion and anger then turn into action.”

Ferrandino maintains that he and McNulty remain friends.

Before our interview ended, I asked Ferrandino if there was anything McNulty did as Speaker that he found effective and might try to replicate.

“When I look at the Speakers I’ve had the pleasures of serving under, I think back to Speaker Carroll and Speaker Romanoff about how I should be in this office,” he responded. “Someone who tries to build consensus, bring people together and work across the aisle.”