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Gay Denver Democrat Mark Ferrandino will ride a wave of enthusiasm to the state Capitol Jan. 9 when he is expected to be elected Colorado’s first openly gay Speaker of the House.

Whether it’s destiny or poetic justice, Ferrandino will replace Highlands Ranch Republican Frank McNulty, who became the public face of opposition to state relationship recognition for same-sex couples, after Democrats took back control of the state House by nine seats after the 2012 election.

And if making state history isn’t enough, Ferrandino and his partner Greg Wertsch have made room in their home for a foster daughter, Lila, they hope to officially adopt sometime during the first part of 2013.

In a one-on-one interview with Out Front from the House floor in the Colorado Capitol building, Ferrandino discussed the election results, how the Colorado Civil Union Act will finally become law, the legalization of marijuana and who will give him more headaches – his foster daughter or his Democratic caucus.

I want to start off talking about poetic justice. Do you feel a sense of irony? You’re the new speaker of the House – the first openly gay speaker of the House. What does that mean? After everything that happened with civil unions, is it destiny? 

I don’t know about destiny. I definitely think “ironic.” Possibly a little poetic justice. I think there were a lot of different things that happened.

What happened with civil unions was a newsworthy and historic event, just in terms of gridlock and the need for a special session. And me, being the sponsor and minority leader, helped solidify our caucus’s support of civil unions and my leadership. You know, everyone says leaders have moments when you grow into your leadership role. And if there was any moment that that happened last year it was civil unions. To be able to take back the majority and become the speaker is amazing and humbling.

Have you spoken with Speaker McNulty? 

Mark Ferrandino. Photo by Norman Dillon

Cover by Sara Decker


We talked election night and had a good conversation. And we met Thursday after the election and spoke about transition. Our staffs have been in communication discussing transition, which is customary. We do work well together, actually.

Before civil unions, how did you arrive at your position? You didn’t have an easy childhood.

I grew up with a learning disability – diagnosed pretty early in life. I was in Special Ed, separate classes from other students. Where I grew up, there were 10 elementary schools. My twin sister and I, after first grade, ended up going to separate elementary schools. So I literally rode the short bus to the other elementary school. Then, I slowly got mainstreamed. I got more involved in other activities like playing the trumpet. Playing the trumpet helped me break out of being in Special Ed and being seen as normal, like every other kid, as normal as anyone ever is. I did track and football.

I met my partner in D.C. After I graduated from college, he got a job out here. We’d been together about a year, and we decided to make the journey West. That was roughly 10 years ago. I always loved policy and politics. My parents will tell you I’ve always had an interest in how our government runs. So when I got out here, I became involved in the Stonewall Democrats and eventually became co-chair and chair for them, and I became treasurer of the state party. At the same time, my state representative stepped down. A vacancy was open and I decided to throw my name in the hat. It was me and another guy. I won, and I’ve been in here ever since.

I always wanted to have the opportunity to make policy and have an impact on the community I live in. Just sitting here [on the House floor] was the experience of a lifetime. I always wanted to be on the budget committee. My passion is budget and numbers. I never dreamt I’d be taking over the gavel and running the chamber. I mean, it wasn’t even in my wildest dreams, a couple of years ago, let alone when I was a kid.

Talk to me about the role of the civil unions in the 2012 election. It wasn’t a serious talking point on the campaign trail. That rage we saw immediately after the session mostly disappeared. 

I wouldn’t say it disappeared. It went to action. It went to a lot of action. If you looked at our campaigns and the volunteers and donors, right after the special session, they increased to our campaigns and that continued. 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.

Speaking of the outcome – 37 House Democrats; that’s a big number. 

More than I had expected. Going into Election Day, I thought we’d have a few-seat majority, maybe three- to four-seat majority. But for a nine-seat majority, all the cards, all the dominos would have to fall in one direction — and they did.

Do you think you have a specific mandate from the voters? 

It’s hard, especially in these House races – everyone is on an individual level. Each candidate is talking, but it seemed like the Republicans, when they had a one-seat majority, acted like they had a mandate. And now we have a nine-seat majority, so, what that means is, it talks to what we were talking about on the campaign trail: smart economic job creation and investments in education. Those are probably the two things we talked about.

Coloradans overwhelmingly voted to tax themselves in ballot initiatives this November. There’s always been talk about the big three fiscal amendments – Gallagher, TABOR and Amendment 23 – that hold back the state House from raising taxes and generating more revenue for the state. Is this going to be a topic of discussion? 

I think there’s the issue of constitutional reform: how do we fix the Gordian knot we’re in and how do we make sure we don’t get into a Gordian knot in the future. In terms of revenue, what the voters showed, if you can make a strong case about where revenue is needed and why its needed, taxpayers are willing to put more investments into their community. I think there are a lot of people outside this building talking about that.

We’re $1 billion underfunded in education, how do we deal with that? The Governor’s budget stops the digging, but it doesn’t go far in filling that hole we have in our education budget. But the broader conversation on revenue will ultimately have to be done by the voters of Colorado.

Ferrandino addresses a crowd at a rally for the Colorado Civil Union Act May 3, 2012. The Colorado Civil Union Act was killed, twice, by the GOP-controlled House before the November elections swept Democrats – and Ferrandino – into control of the House. Photo by Sean Mullins.

Let’s circle back to civil unions, we saw Sen. Steadman tweet today that he and Sen. Guzman will introduce the bill in the Senate again. 

Oh, I didn’t know he tweeted that. I knew he was doing it. I didn’t know he tweeted it.

It was a letter to his constituents. 

I haven’t read it yet. It’s in my inbox. I’m still waiting to read that when I have a second.

Let’s talk a little bit about the rollout. Sen. Steadman said he would imagine civil unions would be passed without reservation. Talk to me a little about that process. What does that look like? 

Sens. Steadman and Guzman will carry the bill in the Senate. Myself and Rep. Schaffer will be the sponsors in the House. And it will go through the normal course of business.

Remember, last time it was held up in the Senate for a long time while we were looking for a Republican sponsor. Now we have sponsors, and we don’t have to wait. I think it will move through the Senate and the House, it will move within the first half [of the session]. It won’t move very quickly because there are lot of joint hearings and other things that need to be done that are kind of the oversight functions of the legislature that happen in the first two weeks. But after that, I think it will move with the same speed of any other bill and head to the governor’s desk.

The last two times the civil union bill was introduced, the effective date was in September, not July like most other bills. Is that still the plan? 

It might be sooner. The issue is the departments implementing this, the county clerks and others who have to record the civil union, how much time do they have to create the forms and do all the upfront work they need to do. Our goal will be to get it through and be implemented as quickly as possible but in a way that we can get it implemented [correctly].

One of the other big social issues the legislature has faced during the last few years but hasn’t passed has been ASSET. 

There’s been a lot of movement on that issue. We’ve seen a significant number of Republicans outside this building, especially in the business community supporting the moving ahead of ASSET. My hope is we can get some Republican support for ASSET and that we can get it passed as well. You don’t punish kids for the actions of their parents. We are better off as a society if they can get an education.

Then there is marijuana. 

That little thing.

Yes, that little thing. Are there plans? Is there already conversation happening? 

People who have supported it, people who have opposed it, have come to a consensus that it is now in the Constitution – and that we, as a government, have an obligation to implement until we are told otherwise by either the courts or the federal government. There have been initial conversations with leadership about trying to create some type of framework to have conversations about what needs to be implemented. We need to do it a way that is systematic, controlled and lives to the intent of what the voters voted for.

One bill that has not had a lot of success, or bipartisan support, has been to strengthen and to give teeth to Colorado’s employment-nondiscrimination laws. It’s going to be re-introduced. 

In the past, I’ve been a supporter of the bill. Conceptually, I think, if we’re going to have policies around nondiscrimination and there are no penalties if people discriminate, then all you have is a nice piece of paper. I think that needs to be addressed. I look forward to working with the sponsors of the bill that we can hopefully achieve this year. It’s always a difficult fight on that legislation. And I don’t expect anything else this year.

The next Colorado General Assembly will be one of the most – if not the most – diverse legislative bodies in its history, including more gays and lesbians serving openly, and the largest black caucus. 

I’m proud of our state that they’re electing people based on their qualifications and what issues they’re fighting for and not based on their sexual orientation or the color of their skin. I think people are looking for the best person no matter their characteristics. I think we’re seeing the idea that we’re all created equal. And I think our state is moving to that place where we see each other as equal.

I have a Twitter Question. Someone asked if you would support civil unions for polygamist couples. 

I saw that.

But before you answer, I want to ask that question in a different way: where should the state draw the line at relationship recognition? There are people out there who are polygamist and polyamorous relationships. What is the responsible line to draw? 

I think the state has a vested interest in creating committed couples – a family structure. I think that’s best with two individuals who are taking responsibility for the other both financially and socially. I think that’s what the state’s interest is. I think it is one of those areas it has been a relationship between a man and a woman. But I think we’re seeing a change, and we saw at the ballot box in November, and in state legislatures in the last couple of years that we’re expanding that [definition] to mean two individuals regardless of gender. And I think that is where the state has a vested interest.

I was going to say, besides adding the title “Speaker” to your name, you also have the title of “dad,” now. 

 Papa, really. Greg is dad. And I’m papa. Me and my partner Greg have been in the process of trying to adopt a child through Denver Human Services for about two years. Going to lots of classes. Lots of background checks. Lots of waiting. Lots of getting rooms ready. Anticipation and hope. Early spring, late spring, we got a call there was a girl who needed placement. And we were able to offer her a home. And she came to us in August. And we’re fostering her now with hopes of adopting her in the coming year. And she’s definitely been life-changing. She’s been with us for three months and it feels like it’s been years.

All parents say they don’t remember life without a kid. I used to think I didn’t have any free time. Now, I realize I must have had a lot of free time. Because now I really don’t have any between the two new roles I have. But, it’s this amazing experience.

What do you think is going to be more difficult? Parenting one child or 36 other Democrats? 

That’s a tough question. I think it will depend on the time of the day. I think the other Democrats will give me more headaches during session. Because, at the same time, when you have a 12-month-old girl, when she looks up at you and smiles, it melts your heart. And you can’t be that mad. With legislatures, they can look up and smile but it’s not the same effect.