When the Colorado General Assembly opened for business at 10 a.m. Jan. 9, a transition of political power from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party established one the most diverse political bodies in the state’s history — including eight openly gay and lesbian lawmakers — and the closest thing to a guarantee in politics that by May 1, same-sex couples here will be able to form civil unions sanctioned by the state.
And there was plenty of pomp, circumstance and history for everyone.
While hundreds of lobbyists and politicos crowded in the Capitol’s third-floor gallery to watch history unfold, from a makeshift front row, John and Stephaine Ferrandino watched a dream came true. Not because their son Mark Ferrandino just became the first gay man in Colorado’s history to assume one of the most powerful positions in state politics – speaker of the House – but because, as John said, “it’s always a wonderful thing for a parent to see his kid’s dream come true.”
“Not every parent gets to see that,” John added.
History aside, in his opening remarks after being unanimously voted Speaker, Ferrandino blended bipartisan rhetoric with clear legislative priorities.
“The investments of previous generations have allowed Colorado to grow and prosper, and we have a responsibility to build on what previous generations have handed to us,” Ferrandino said. “By working together, we will build an even great state of Colorado that we will be proud to hand off to the next generation.”
While issues like the state’s budget, the economy and a response to the Aurora theater massacre still need to be sorted out — and Ferrandino made note of each in his address — the fate for the Colorado Civil Union Act, a bill re-introduced for the third time Jan. 9 and that will establish relationship recognition for same-sex couples here, was predetermined on Election Day last year after Ferrandino helped orchestrate a Democratic victory that claimed every competitive House race and gave his party a nine-seat majority.
Ferrandino was first appointed minority leader in late 2011 after state Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, stepped aside to focus on his Congressional bid. Since taking over control of the caucus, one of Ferrandino’s top priorities was to restore the majority his party lost by one seat in the 2010 elections.
House district lines favorable to the Democrats, millions of dollars, a downticket effect from the Presidential race and a sea of enthusiasm from Colorado’s progressive coalition with added tide from a nationwide network of donors supporting gay rights helped the self-proclaimed budget wonk establish his wins.
“If you looked at our campaigns and the volunteers and donors, right after the special session (on civil unions), they increased to our campaigns and that continued,” Ferrandino said in a pre-session interview. “You saw a lot of people activated — both gay and straight — working from the special session all the way through Election Day to make sure a different outcome occurred.”
Last May, the state House came to a screeching halt after the Colorado Civil Union Act cleared three Republican controlled House committees, but, knowing there was enough votes to pass the bill to Gov. John Hickenlooper for his signature, then-Speaker of the House Frank McNulty and his GOP leadership team put the House in recess and ran out the clock on the bill.
Onlookers from the third floor gallery chanted “shame on you,” after McNulty called the breakdown an impasse between him and Ferrandino.
Hickenlooper called for a special session of the General Assembly, urging GOP leadership to reconsider, but McNulty sent the bill to a kill committee.
For gay rights activist and the progressive community, payback arrived Wednesday.
“It is our job to keep an open mind and a willingness to bend, if just a little, for the good of the whole,” Ferrandino said in his speech, moment after accepting the speaker’s gavel from McNulty. “It is our job to question our preconceived notions. … When we go it alone, the path to success is far steeper and narrower. the legislature is no place for rugged individualists.”
Newly-appointed Republican House minority leader Mark Waller, from Colorado Springs, echoed Ferrandino’s call for bipartisanship:
“We begin our work on the heels of a difficult election season, but the time for political grandstanding is past,” he said. “As a body of citizen legislators, we are united by our duty — and our desire — to create new opportunities for every individual living in Colorado. … I pledge to you that House Republicans will do everything in our power to build the coalition we need to strengthen our state together.”
And House Republicans will have at least five chances to reach across the isle and work with openly gay and lesbian lawmakers. Returning to the House with Ferrandino is state Rep. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge, and newly elected out state Reps. are Joann Ginal of Fort Collins, Paul Rosenthal of Denver, and Dominick Moreno of Commerce City.
Three other openly gay and lesbian lawmakers hold seats in the state Senate. Joining state Sen. Pat Steadman and Lucia Guzman, both of Denver, is Jessie Ulibarri of Commerce City.
Schafer said she was excited about the tone both Ferrandino and Waller took with their opening remarks.
“I don’t just reach across the isle,” she said. “I walk across. I have to model my bipartisanship.”
First elected in 2008, Schafer suggested newly-elected out lawmakers — both gay and straight — listen to their constituents needs.
“We get down here and we think, ‘I have to get 33 votes to pass a bill,’ but first you need to ask ‘what do my constituents think?'” she said.