Republican challenger insists its ‘Miller time’ in House District 2

By Jimy Valenti
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The distant view of I-25 and downtown Denver flickers in the 95-degree heat as the legislator follows a blue dot on his iPhone leading him to the next house. He uses an iPhone app called MiniVAN to target Democrats and unaffiliated residents who voted in the last election. An older man with a white goatee answers the door, “Oh, its Mark Ferrandino!”

Rep. Ferrandino, D-HD 2, loves when residents recognize him because he said it means he is staying active in the community. He asks the man if there is anything he should be working on in the legislature.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, 32, served as the treasurer for the Colorado Democratic Party from 2005 through 2007.

The constituent wants something done to curb graffiti in his neighborhood, a task Ferrandino has worked on the last two sessions.

As Ferrandino goes door to door in the Athmar Park neighborhood in Denver’s southwest corner, he hears a litany of concerns ranging from city issues, such as potholes and alleys, to national concerns on racism, immigration and the economy. One resident asks Ferrandino, “You got a job?”

His Republican opponent this November, writer, poet and criminal defense lawyer Thomas “Doc” Miller, said Ferrandino has killed jobs and over burdened the district with taxes.

“We need someone with some creativity outside political dogma,” Miller said.

This is Miller’s second time running against Ferrandino. In 2008 the Democratic stronghold favored Ferrandino 79.8 percent to Miller’s 20.2 percent. As of August 1 of this year there are 11,378 Democrats, 6,132 unaffiliated voters and 2,490 Republican active voters in the district.

Ferrandino has also outraised Miller, as of July 28, $18,297 to $750. The district contains the Valverde, Westwood and Athmar Park neighborhoods along with the non-stadium portion of Sun Valley and the western half of Lincoln Park.

The daunting numbers against Miller don’t faze him. Occasionally he calls voters who hang up immediately when they learn his party affiliation.

“Frankly that makes it more fun,” Miller said. “Everybody likes a good challenge. I know the numbers are against me.”

House District 2 GOP candidate Thomas “Doc” Miller poses next to an original campaign poster painted by Jack Jensen, owner of Mutiny Now Art Books and Coffee. The painting is on display in Jensen’s store.
Photo courtesy Judith Phillips Photography

Denver County Republican Chair Ryan Call said this is a unique year for Republicans because Democrats are in power on every level of government from the president to the state house. He said voters can see Democratic policies in action — massive debt, over spending and a lack of financial discipline.

At the Denver County Republican headquarters volunteers call unaffiliated and Republican voters from a bank of 30 phone lines every night and weekends, informing them of the stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats.

“Republicans have for the first time in a generation the opportunity to paint those contrasts in bright colors and Doc is a candidate who definitely paints in bright colors,” Call said.

Driving down south Broadway and along Ellsworth, where Miller’s home and office are located, ‘Elect Doc Miller’ signs hang from half a dozen businesses, but one stands out above the rest.

Jack Jensen, 54, owner of Mutiny Now Art Books and Coffee, located a block from Miller’s place, painted a large campaign poster that sits in his store’s front window. It features James Dean smoking a cigarette with the words, “Elect Doc Miller.” Call said the painting epitomizes the Republican contrast to Democrats with its loud neon colors.

“I’m just trying to remind people the Doc is our neighbor,” Jensen said. “Its not about the party, its about our neighborhood. I chose James Dean because he is a strong American and if this type of American is for Doc, than who wouldn’t be?”

“Doc” was originally the 59-year-old Miller’s boyhood nickname because he resembled his great uncle named Doc Donaldson. The name faded around his sixth birthday, but after finishing law school at the University of Denver his father, a physician, said “Congratulations Doc!”

“When a man you respect that much brings you back to a boyhood name its an honor,” Miller said.

In preparation for his second run at office, Miller embarked on a “reading tour” in an attempt to better understand the current political landscape.

“I read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Brian Burrell’s The Words We Live By and other works describing how our republic fell into the miasma it is in now,” said Miller, cigarette in hand, surrounded by floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with works by the literary masters, Greek and Latin dictionaries and American historical texts.

Miller graduated with a degree in history and English from Metropolitan State College. He received his Masters in English from Middlebury College in Vermont and spent two summers studying at Oxford University in England. He previously taught English and writing at Arapahoe Community College and continues writing fiction and poetry.

His campaign and even his legal website are littered with short stories and poems. The poem entitled “Chihuahuas” recounts an afternoon canvassing the district when a pack of Chihuahuas chased him and a nine-year-old volunteer down the street. Miller said these memories and the friends he makes while campaigning are what keep him energized.

“I can’t tell you enough how much love and respect I have for the people involved with this campaign,” Miller said. “It’s new to me, being liked. Usually I walk into a courtroom and everyone despises me.”

Drug issue takes center stage
Miller’s nearly 20 years in the courtroom as a criminal defense attorney have shaped his campaign’s number one issue: ending the drug war. Miller said he has seen hundreds of men and women hauled off to jail on possession charges and can “only fish them out one at a time.”

According to Miller, drug possession cases are overburdening the justice system, costing the state billions a year and overcrowding prisons. He said legalizing marijuana could solve most of the state’s budget issues due to reductions in arrests, court costs and jailing.

“All drugs should be administered by physicians,” Miller said. “Lawyers, judges and cops shouldn’t be making decisions about drugs. If a person wants to be a heroin addict, that’s his choice.”

Miller said the American appetite for drugs fuels border violence and has created narco terrorism across South America. The first step in securing the border and saving countless lives is to stop the drug war, he said.

The marijuana issue boiled over in the year’s first interaction between Miller and Ferrandino. Both men said that in 2008 they got along well, but Ferrandino said this year didn’t start off with the same cordial atmosphere.

According to Ferrandino, Miller attempted to hijack his monthly town hall meeting last June. The forum’s agenda was to discuss the 2010 legislative session. Miller said he was only exercising his first amendment rights when demanding that Ferrandino work to legalize marijuana.

“I don’t think he was happy that he had his agenda changed, but it was a town hall meeting and attempting to tell people in the town hall they can’t speak is a denial of free speech,” Miller said. “That is the act of a bureaucrat who has too much power and doesn’t respect his constituency. I was deeply offended.”

Ferrandino said he didn’t tell Miller to back off at the forum — the citizens there did. He said he agrees with Miller about legalizing marijuana, but that he wanted to finish his legislative wrap-up.

“We don’t differ on it,” Ferrandino said. “I’m supportive of it. I think it needs to go to the people just like medical marijuana did. It needs strict regulations and enforcements. Its not something that we majorly differ on.”

Further debates between the two candidates are tentatively scheduled later in September.

It’s the economy, says Ferrandino
Ferrandino, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said there are more pressing issues facing the state than legalizing marijuana. Jobs and the economy, foreclosures and ensuring a quality education are atop his list.

Ferrandino was first appointed to the Colorado House of Representatives through a vacancy committee in September 2007 to replace Mike Cerbo, who left to become executive director of the Colorado AFL/CIO.

Ferrandino, 32, served as the treasurer for the Colorado Democratic Party from 2005 through 2007 and served as the senior budget analyst for the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. When not in session, Ferrandino works part-time for a non-profit mental health organization in Jefferson County.

During his tenure in the state house, Ferrandino worked on numerous consumer protection measures including the payday lending legislation passed last session. His concentration in consumer protection, he said, is due to the economic make up of his district and his background in economics.

“I focus a lot on numbers,” said Ferrandino, who holds a B.A. in Political Science and Economics and a M.S. in Public Policy from the University of Rochester. “I let numbers tell the stories. When you look at these things that are going on and you run through the numbers it is obviously clear.”

HD 2 is made up of mostly working class residents and encompasses some public housing. Ferrandino said it’s the people most at risk that are taken advantage of by consumer scams and that these people are least able to survive such scams.

Ferrandino sponsored the payday lending bill last session, which restricts interest rates charged by payday lending companies. Under HB 1352, payday loan companies are limited to charging a monthly maintenance fee of no more than $7.50 for every $300 loaned, capped at $30 a month. The law also limits payday lenders from offering new loans for 30 days.

Previously, payday lenders were allowed to impose finance charges anywhere from 300 to 500 percent calculated as an annual percentage rate. Ferrandino’s law caps that rate to 45 percent.

“The only way that business survived was to trap people in a cycle of debt,” Ferrandino said. “That wasn’t helping anyone. When you have a product built on hurting someone I don’t think government should sanction it.”

Miller vehemently opposes the new payday lending regulations. He said government should not interfere with private business and individual choice.

“When you take all the money from a person from license plate fees and they can’t feed their family they can hawk something and pay 300 percent or they can take a payday loan,” Miller said. “If they hawk it they may never get it back. At least they can pay back a loan.”

Miller calls license plate fees the cruelest tax imaginable. Rising license plate fees sit at the center of Miller’s campaign. He said the tax directly takes food off the table for many families in his district. The only way to help HD 2 residents avoid a cycle of debt or foreclosures on their homes is to lower taxes, Miller said.

“Give them back their money, it’s their money,” Miller said. “The only way people can make their house payments or feed their family is to get government off their back.”

Miller said Ferrandino, along with other Democrats, are raising taxes and trying to spend their way out of the current double dip recession. He said Democrats raise taxes predicated on the belief that government will do all. The only way to jumpstart the economy is too shrink government, according to Miller.

Ferrandino said the state has cut billions of dollars in the last few years, which has resulted in the loss of jobs and services. He said the budget is balanced every year through tough choices.

“I’m proud of the record that we have been able to accomplish,” Ferrandino said. “It’s not choices we wanted to make, but choices we had to make to move our state forward.”

“I plan to be a very vocal critic of both Republicans and Democrats for their failure to take action,” Miller said. “I don’t owe anybody anything. I’m not beholden and I’m not going to be beholden because I plan to rock the house.”

Jimy@coloradostatesman.com