DENVER — Colorado House Democrats Thursday elected Rep. Mark Ferrandino to be the new Speaker of the House come January — the first time in state history that a gay lawmaker will preside over a legislative chamber.
Democrats won control of the House in Tuesday’s elections, erasing the GOP’s 33-32 House majority by winning every closely contested race and ending up with a much wider 37-28 majority of their own.
Ferrandino, D-Denver, currently serving as the House minority leader, ran unopposed for Speaker and was enthusiastically elevated to the top spot by his fellow Democrats.
“As a kid growing up in New York who had a learning disability and just struggled a lot, was picked on and called names, to be where I am and to have your support to do that, it’s awesome, it’s humbling,” Ferrandino, choking up, told his caucus after it was official.
“I couldn’t dream when I was in elementary school and high school that I’d be doing this.”
Twenty years after Colorado voters added a gay marriage ban to the state constitution and just six months after House Republicans killed civil unions legislation he sponsored on the session’s penultimate day, Ferrandino marveled Thursday at the relatively quick turn of events.
“Now we have our first openly gay Speaker and I think it speaks volumes for our state,” Ferrandino told FOX31 Denver.
Ferrandino also thanked his parents, who flew out from New York to be at the Colorado Capitol on Thursday.
Morse elected Senate President over Steadman
The Senate also had the opportunity to elect a gay lawmaker as its own leader Thursday morning, with Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, throwing his hat in the ring; but the Democratic caucus instead elected Majority Leader John Morse of Colorado Springs to be the next Senate President.
“This is all about leadership and leadership is about bringing people together and getting things done for the state of Colorado,” Morse told FOX31 Denver.
Steadman, along with Ferrandino, has twice co-sponsored civil unions legislation, which Republicans in the House blocked at the end of the last legislative session in May.
Steadman, who’s served on the Joint Budget Committee for two sessions, will return to lead that six-member panel as chairman during the 2013 legislative session.
Democrats elevate several Hispanics to leadership positions
By re-taking the majority, House Democrats also won a second appointment to the JBC; and Ferrandino confirmed Thursday that Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, will be added to the powerful committee that oversees Colorado’s $18 billion budget.
Duran, entering her third year in the legislature, is among a handful of Hispanic members elevated Thursday to leadership positions.
Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, was elected Senate President Pro-Tem by her caucus; and Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, will serve as assistant majority leader.
In the House, Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, was elected assistant majority leader and incoming Rep.-Elect Domenick Moreno, D-Commerce City, was elected assistant caucus chair.
Waller elected GOP House leader, McNulty sticking around
House Republicans, after losing their majority, elected Rep. Mark Waller of Colorado Springs to serve as minority leader next year.
Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, did not run for a leadership post on Thursday but told FOX31 Denver he has no plans to resign his seat in the legislature and is going to return in January.
McNulty, who came under fire after stopping debate on the House floor the night before the session’s final day in order to avoid a vote on the civil unions measure that was certain to pass, credited the Democratic sweep of battleground statehouse races to President Obama’s turnout “machine.”
“I certainly didn’t expect the Democrats to do as well as they did,” McNulty told FOX31 Denver Thursday. “[The Obama machine] was devastatingly effective; we underestimated it and that’s one of the places we’re going to revisit as we look to the elections in 2014.
“It’s absolutely clear that the dominant factor in this election was the Obama machine. There is no other way to explain it. They’re good and they get credit for that.”
Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, will serve as assistant minority leader and will be the only Hispanic GOP legislator serving in a leadership role under the gold dome next year.
In the senate, Republicans stuck with Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, as minority leader.
In sum, three of the four leaders working inside a Democrat-controlled legislature will be from the most conservative city in the state, Colorado Springs.
Ferrandino reflects on making history
In an interview with FOX31 Denver Wednesday morning, Ferrandino reflected on making history.
“Going back 20 years, Colorado passed Amendment 2 and we became known as the hate state,” Ferrandino said. “To get to where we are now, this state has come so far in terms of equality for all Coloradans. It’s amazing to be a part of it.”
(Note: Amendment 2 took away the ability of Colorado cities and towns to put in place non-discrimination laws against homosexuals.)
Ferrandino also attributed his new, large 37-28 Democratic majority, at least in some part, to the way McNulty and House Republicans killed civil unions at the end of this year’s regular session — and, a week later during a special session called by Gov. Hickenlooper, the way they killed it a second time by sending it to a different House committee than the three panels that passed it already.
The breakdown of the legislative process over civil unions energized the Democratic base in two ways, Ferrandino said, galvanizing Democratic donors and activists alike.
“We saw such a great turnout because of what happened at the end of the last term,” Ferrandino said. “People wanted to help, and the LGBT community really came together in a way that we haven’t seen before.”
The second way the squashing of civil unions helped Democrats, Ferrandino said, was that the efforts of somewhat-divisive efforts of Republicans ended up disenfranchising many independent voters.
“We found that civil unions had the support of the people,” Ferrandino said. “So we really found a lot of people on the campaign trail who thought that the House didn’t live up to its potential in a democratic way by killing civil unions.”
“They didn’t feel comfortable in the leadership that was in the House. So now we’re going to see new leadership.”
Civil unions, ASSET on the fast-track now
The civil unions legislation that House Republicans essentially sacrificed their own majority to quash back in May is now certain to move quickly through the legislature when it reconvenes in January; the bill, along with “Colorado ASSET” legislation that will make college more affordable for qualifying undocumented students, will probably be on Gov. Hickenlooper’s desk by February.
Morse hinted that it may happen even faster than that.
“Why is it going to take until February?” he said. “We should be able to get those bills to the governor’s desk by not even late January.”