House Democrats elected state Rep. Mark Ferrandino as the caucus’s minority leader by acclamation on Nov. 18, making the Denver Democrat the first openly gay man to win a top leadership spot at the Colorado Capitol. Ferrandino takes over for congressional candidate Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, who announced earlier this month he was stepping down from the post.
In one of his first official acts, Ferrandino named Minority Whip Claire Levy, D-Boulder, to take his place on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which began wrestling with next year’s budget earlier this month.
While Ferrandino extended an olive branch across the aisle — he had a difficult time getting out the word “partisanship” when he told his caucus he wants to solve problems, not score points — he promised Democrats he won’t back down if the GOP majority uses its single-vote advantage to steamroll the minority.
“I will not shy away from fights when regular people are being trampled on,” Ferrandino told Democrats. “I have already heard rumors that no Democratic bill is going to get out of committee this year, and I hope that’s not the case. If it is, it would only validate people’s worst assumptions about the pettiness of partisan politics. I will not allow the dysfunction that is infecting our national politics to poison Colorado.”
Ferrandino took a preemptive jab at House Speaker Frank McNulty, warning the Highlands Ranch Republican to expect return fire if the legislative session flounders amid election year politics.
“If the current speaker is going to put politics ahead of what is good for the people of our state, then I will be there to call him out on that and talk about how those tactics are not finding real solutions for people in this state,” Ferrandino said.
McNulty appeared in the hallway outside the basement committee room to congratulate Ferrandino and then told reporters that the new minority leaders can keep his powder dry if he keeps his caucus in check.
“Every bill will have a hearing in front of committee, any bill that’s introduced by a Republican or Democrat,” McNulty said. “But if the Democrats continue to introduce union-payback bills and bills that kill the Colorado economy, then, I would suspect, they might have a more rough go.”
For her part, Levy said she was honored to take a seat on the JBC and ready to get to work.
“While I’m mindful of the fiscal constraints we’re under,” Levy said in a statement, “I will be striving to protect our most vulnerable populations from debilitating budget cuts while using state revenues effectively and prudently.”
Sources in the Democratic caucus predicted it could be a bruising, three-way race to replace Levy as minority whip. Before voting in Ferrandino, Democrats spent about 20 minutes debating whether to let lawmakers vote by proxy or text message for the anticipated leadership vacancy but eventually decided to treat that meeting — set for Nov. 28 — like any other.
One piece of pending legislation could raise sparks between the parties in the upcoming session.
Ferrandino said he’s working to recruit a House Republican to sponsor a resurrected bill to establish civil unions in the state. The legislation — sponsored this year by Ferrandino and state Sen. Pat Steadman, also an openly gay Denver Democrat — passed the Democratic-controlled Senate with Republican support but a Republican-dominated House committee voted it down.
“There’s overwhelming support from the people of Colorado for civil unions, and hopefully we will see the Republican Party let it go to the floor for full debate, where it should be debated,” Ferrandino said. “We’re hopeful that we can find a Republican in the House who can help carry that bill. If we can find a Republican who’s willing to support this bill and put their name as a lead sponsor, that would be great.”
The two caucus leaders both vowed to win a majority in the chamber in next year’s elections.
“Together,” Ferrandino told his caucus, “we can get back a House that is fighting for the people of Colorado, not special interests or some radical fringe group.”
Likewise, McNulty said Republicans plan to keep the gavel. “It’s absolutely critical that we grow our pro-employer, pro-jobs majority,” he said.
But with control of the House secure for at least another year, McNulty was all smiles, saying he has enjoyed facing off against Pace and anticipates a good relationship with Ferrandino.
“On a personal level, both are honest, decent men,” McNulty said, “and I’ve worked well with both of them during my time down here, and they’ve worked well with us.”
As for being the first gay man to lead a statehouse caucus — former Minority Leader Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, was the first LGBT lawmaker to clear that bar more than eight years ago — Ferrandino said the distinction was meaningful but shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“If you look back to Amendment 2, that was passed just under 20 years ago, to where we are today, we have made significant progress in terms of equality,” he said, adding that he believes the attitudes of Colorado voters are changing rapidly.
Leaders of Colorado’s LGBT community hailed Ferrandino’s election.
“When openly LGBT people are elected, the face of politics is changed,” said Brad Clark, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group One Colorado, in a statement. “By speaking honestly about their lives and their families, they are giving voice to our community and bravely serving as champions for equality.”