Termed-out Democrats discuss their legacies

The Colorado Statesman

Several Democrats will face term limits this year after many years of service, including Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the first openly gay speaker of the House, who believes that his rise to leadership oddly rested in part on the failure of a same-sex civil unions measure in 2012.

Sworn-in on Oct. 1, 2007 after then-Rep. Mike Cerbo of Denver stepped down, Ferrandino was only 29 years old. The bright-eyed optimist with a penchant for budget discussions could have never dreamed that his legislative journey would take him to the top of the House chamber’s food chain.

His story gained momentum in the waning hours of the 2012 legislative session. Gay rights groups were more optimistic than ever that a piece of legislation approving same-sex civil unions was finally going to pass the legislature after years of prior attempts. A handful of Republicans had joined with Democrats to support the measure. All that was needed was a vote in the House.

Then-House Speaker Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch knew that the bill had the votes to pass, but he didn’t believe it was in his caucus’ best interest to bring the measure up for a vote.

Democrats attempted several parliamentary moves to bring Senate Bill 2 up for debate, but the majority Republicans killed their attempts.

As the night wore on, little changed between McNulty and Ferrandino in terms of negotiations. At times things got antagonistic — McNulty charged Ferrandino on the House floor at one point and the two men nearly locked chests in the midst of the chaos. It was strange because they share a close friendship.

In the end, the bill died both that night and later during a special session called by the governor.

Ferrandino swore at the time to rectify the situation at the polls the following November. He mobilized an army of Democrats to campaign like their lives depended on it.

Incoming House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, his husband, Greg Wertsch, and parents, Stephanie and John Ferrandino watch proceedings on the legislature’s opening day on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 at the state Capitol.

By the time the polls closed, Democrats picked up five seats in the House, including knocking out four Republican incumbents, to give them a 37-28 majority. Republicans had held a 33-32 majority for only two years.

Also opening the door for Ferrandino to preside over the chamber was the fact that then-House Minority Leader Sal Pace of Pueblo had stepped aside to take a swing at U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

Looking back at the seemingly impossible turn of events, Ferrandino is still left in awe, especially considering that he almost died May of 2012.

He was running across 14th Street to the Capitol following an appropriations committee meeting to talk to McNulty about the civil unions bill. He was the ranking Democrat on the Joint Budget Committee at the time. Ferrandino was so excited to talk civil unions that he didn’t notice a car coming.

“I didn’t get hit, but I could have,” recalled the speaker. “That would have been a totally different story.”

He acknowledged that it is a bit twisted that his rise may have rested on the death of a bill coveted by the LGBT community. But he points out that just a year later the Democratic majority prevailed by finally passing civil unions.

“What civil unions did when it died… it solidified my position as the leader of the caucus,” he continued. “If it didn’t happen… I probably would have still been speaker, but it went to a place where I had the title of leadership, but after civil unions, I became the leader.

“It’s ironic,” Ferrandino added. “But it’s one of those days and a series of days in my life that I will never forget… If we didn’t lose the majority [in 2010] I wouldn’t be sitting in this office…”

For Ferrandino, the title of speaker has been a bit of a fantasy, but not one that he ever planned for.

“My goal was to be on the JBC, and then once I was on the JBC I wanted to be chairman of the JBC. I was happy there, I was going to sit across the street, work on the budget and never think again of leadership,” he said.

Born with oxygen deprivation, Ferrandino was cross-eyed and had to have surgery as a child to correct his eye condition. He also had problems with speech and reading, among other learning disabilities.

Despite the challenges, Ferrandino was always a bit of a whiz when it came to numbers and policy. He majored in political science and economics at the University of Rochester, then received a master’s degree in public-policy analysis.

His first job in Colorado was as a budget analyst for the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. From there he stepped into elected office.

“I always, since I was a kid, since I was 10… I was always interested in politics and policy, so I’d always had an interest in running (for office)… Instead of watching Saturday morning cartoons I would watch Sunday morning talk shows,” recalled Ferrandino.

The speaker said it was never a decision to be a Democrat; it was just sort of in his blood. Coming out as gay just solidified his choice to align with the Democratic Party.

“In college, when I came out and I started to realize I was gay, that definitely moved me towards the Democratic Party…” he said. “Is a gay Republican an oxymoron? That’s changing. But it’s not completely there. I look forward to the time when it’s not an issue between Democrats and Republicans, and I think we’re getting there.”

Ferrandino believes that he has grown for the better over his time in office. For one, he’s more realistic about life. He and his partner have also adopted a child — Lila — that has also shifted his focus.

“As a 29-year-old, you’re rash and brash and want to jump into everything, and now I’m much more nuanced in my approach to things,” explained the speaker. “I also have learned, especially being speaker and a dad, that you can’t stress over everything.

“In the last couple of years I sleep better now than I used to because you deal with what you can, and what you can’t control you just let be,” Ferrandino added. “Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s somewhat relieving to look at the world and say, ‘I can’t control everything, so it is going to be what it is.’”

Looking back, one piece of legislation that really sticks out for the speaker was a bill he ran in 2008 aimed at curbing the payday lending industry. He points out that he was able to strike a secret deal with a Republican in order to pass the measure through the House during his freshman term.

The bill ultimately died in the Senate under the leadership of then-Senate President Peter Groff of Denver, despite the bill being sponsored by Groff.

“The fact that a freshman legislator could get this controversial bill out of the House and it died by the president of the Senate, it definitely gave me a name and a reputation of knowing what I’m talking about, doing my homework and being persistent,” explained Ferrandino.

After several years of attempts, Ferrandino was finally able to pass a payday lending bill through the legislature.

“They always say, ‘Don’t marry an issue, carry an issue.’ This one I married many times over, and we finally got something passed after three years,” he said. “It’s what I think got me the respect in my first year in a lot of ways.”

The speaker is not exactly sure what’s next for him. He hopes to stay in policy, perhaps doing budget work. But he says he is simply focused right now on finishing the current session.

That doesn’t mean he has ruled out another run for public office. But one place he won’t be headed is the Senate. Ferrandino has long joked that the Senate is an inferior body to the House.

“Maybe when I’m 70 and I’m a curmudgeon and want to come back, maybe I’ll be sick enough to run for the Senate,” he joked. “I’ll probably have dementia and I’ll decide that the Senate is a good place to go, but you don’t go from the most powerful position in the legislature to a back bencher in the Senate. It just doesn’t happen.”

What Ferrandino won’t miss is managing a building full of strong personalities.

“It’s the high school behavior,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter what party, especially sitting in this job, I’m the principal of Capitol High School in some ways…”

Shifting toward extremism?

The personalities that Ferrandino is referring to have been magnified in recent years, according to Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, who is also term limited this year.

Tochtrop is in a unique position to comment, having been elected to the House in 1998 and then moving over to the Senate. She is finishing her 16th legislative session.

State Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, left, and Adams County Commissioner Alice Nichol pose for a snapshot at the Adams County Democratic assembly on March 17, 2012 in Brighton.

While Tochtrop is a Democrat, she hasn’t always sided with her party. She joined with Republicans to fight smoking bans, gun control measures and a rural renewable energy standard, among other bills.

For her maverick style, some Capitol insiders have given her the nickname “Truckstop.”

The 72-year-old registered nurse has always prided herself on working across the aisle. But she believes bipartisanship is quickly being lost to extremism.

“I was always able to work across the aisle on issues with people,” she said. “I understood… that if you want to get something done you have to work across the aisle with other people.

“The legislature was a lot different…” she added about her time as a freshman. “There was a lot more moderates on both sides of the aisle. Unfortunately it has since changed.”

Tochtrop encourages lawmakers to remember that Colorado is a purple state, which should result in moderate legislation. But she believes a rise of grassroots activists who often silence moderates has caused extremism to intensify.

“The caucus system has created this problem…” she surmised. “You have the extreme activists… that attend your caucus and consequently because of that it’s created a problem where you get the extremes on both sides of the aisle rather than moderates.”

Tochtrop doesn’t take it personally that some even in her own party have criticized her for her moderate votes over the years. When she started the 2013 session, she assumed that she would be re-elected assistant majority leader by her caucus, but she lost. Tochtrop says she didn’t take that personally either.

“I’ve got a strong back and I knew I was doing what my constituents wanted in general,” she explained. “If you don’t make half the people mad, you’re not doing your job.”

Rep. Jeanne Labuda, D-Denver, may not have as many years in the building as Tochtrop, but she has also witnessed a departure from moderate legislating. Labuda is finishing her eighth
session.

She attributes the rising contention to four years ago when Democrats lost the majority and the tea party rose to power.

“I began wondering if any of them even took civics because one of them said to the committee, ‘What do you mean we don’t have a final say on bills?’” recalled Labuda. “Well, the governor has something to do with it. I mean, don’t you think about the separation of powers?”

But Labuda believes that things are actually improving. She has seen a decrease in the amount of influence that the tea party has, and she believes that there is hope for future sessions.

“Most of the folks who came in saying ‘no, no’ all the time have modified their stance when they see all that government pays for,” Labuda explained. “You don’t see it unless you get involved in the money and that changes you.”

Impacting the community

But even though tensions can run high in the legislature — both between parties and through inter-party squabbles — Tochtrop and Labuda believe their tenures were worth it because they impacted the community.

Tochtrop has a bit of a full circle story to tell, having introduced her first bill in 1999 to increase personal need funding to people in long-term care centers. People thought she was crazy at the time trying to get money out of the general fund as a freshman minority lawmaker. But she got the job done.

“When the bill was heard in committee… it was heard in the [Old] Supreme Court Chambers… and I was scared to death,” Tochtrop remembered of her first bill.

This year, she is running a similar measure that would increase the funding even further, thereby bringing her legislative career back to where it kicked off.

“This year it will be one of the last bills that I pass… it feels like I’ve really done something for people that people tend to forget about,” she said.

Tochtrop doesn’t have many political aspirations moving forward, suggesting that it is time for her to actually enjoy retirement by traveling and riding her horses.

She may do some volunteer political work, pointing to the re-election campaign of her colleague Cheri Jahn, another moderate Senate Democrat. But Tochtrop says her political career is over.

State Rep. Jeanne Labuda and her husband, Michael Taber, await results in an assembly vote between Labuda and primary challenger Corrie Houck at the House District 1 assembly on March 31, 2012 in Denver. Labuda won top line in the primary.
File photos by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“My husband would divorce me if I even considered running for another political office,” she laughed.

Labuda also has fond memories of her time in the legislature, pointing to one of her very first bills addressing child custody issues for military personnel.

“To get a bill enacted that I know definitely helps people, I mean, I’ve had a few of those, but we pass a lot of bills down here that help people,” she said.

Labuda will most miss the people she works with every day, including staff and her colleagues.

She plans to stay involved in politics, but she isn’t exactly sure what yet. One idea is to run for Denver City Council. She plans to make that decision on a sailing trip with her husband after the session.

Overall, Labuda believes her experience in the legislature has helped her to grow as a person.

“I think I’m more grounded than I was because I’m more knowledgeable. Knowledge is power…” she said. “I can’t see myself getting entirely out of politics… I’m definitely going to stay involved somehow.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com