House Speaker Mark Ferrandino's bedazzled gavel

(Photo: CPR/Megan Verlee)
When Denver Democrat Mark Ferrandino was elected Speaker of the House, his friends and family surprised him with a massive, rhinestone-encrusted novelty gavel. It was a showy statement that echoed the incoming Speaker's irreverant approach to his new office.

During his two years as Speaker, Ferrandino never missed an opportunity to mock his rival chamber, the State Senate, or to levy joking fines on representatives for breaking the chamber's rules. He took a central role in divisive battles over civil unions and gun control.

So it's a bit surprising to hear that the leader of the House considers his greatest obstacle in life to be a lack of confidence.

Ferrandino was a special education student – "a kid who took the short bus to school," as he describes it.  The self assurance needed to step out into politics was hard-won. 

That may be why, despite making history as Colorado's first openly gay speaker, Ferrandino makes it a point to emphasize the education obstacles he had to overcome.

"There are so many people out there who struggle with these issues and it's important to see that if you work hard and you're persistent, you can reach your dreams," Ferrandino says.

Civil unions and payday loans

(Photo: Courtesy of Speaker Mark Ferrandino)
Legislatively, Ferrandino is likely to be best remembered as one of the sponsors of the 2013 bill to create civil unions in the state. It was his third try on the bill. The policy had enough support to pass a year earlier but in the final days of the 2012 session then-Speaker Frank McNulty, a Republican, shut down all work in the chamber rather than let the bill come up for a vote. That stand-off helped raise Ferrandino's profile and arguably helped give Democrats the electoral boost they needed to win back control of the House.

In the year since civil unions became law, the effort has ramped up in Colorado for gay couples to win full marriage equality, either through the ballot or the courts. But Ferrandino says there are still practical reasons why he felt it was important to pass civil unions.

"I've heard some pushback, especially in the LGBT community," Ferrandino says. "They felt we should have just gone for marriage equality. But when you sit down and talk to them and you talk about the families who are impacted, the needs for those protections for those families, they understand why we did what we did."

Ferrandino also spent three years pushing for reforms to Colorado's payday lending laws, a policy change he says is actually his proudest legislative accomplishment.

"It was kind of David versus Goliath. The other side spent millions of dollars and we were just a ragtag group of legislators and activists working to try to put some reforms and guardrails around what we saw as a very predatory product," Ferrandino says. As evidence of the law's effect, he points to a Pew Study that found Colorado now has the lowest payday loan interest rates of any state in the country.

A divisive session

Ferrandino's first year as House Speaker was notably busy one, with Democrats passing numerous major policy changes to election and gun laws and to Colorado's rural renewable energy standard, among others. Republicans are counting on voter anger over that session to help them in this fall's election. But Ferrandino downplays the session's divisiveness.

"When [Democrats] got into the majority, there were a lot of things we wanted to accomplish," Ferrandino says.

He points out that for the two years prior, the Legislature had been split between Republicans and Democrats, making big policy changes much more difficult.

"I think we've done some significant work for the state of Colorado," Ferrandino notes.

With his time at the Legislature at an end, Ferrandino says he plans to take it easy for a little while. He hopes to spend more time with his two-and-a-half year-old daughter, Lila, whom he adopted last year with his husband Greg Wertsch. After enough R&R, Ferradino says he'll start looking for a position back in the political policy world.