House opens with historic new leadership as Ferrandino takes over as Speaker

The Colorado Statesman

The Colorado House elected state Rep. Mark Ferrandino as its first gay speaker on Wednesday as a new Democratic maj-ority took over the gavel amid calls for cooperation and comity on the opening day of the 69th General Assembly.

“This is the greatest honor of my life, and I am humbled to stand here before you today,” said the Denver Democrat, whose family — including his husband, Greg Wertsch — sat in the front row of a packed House chamber. Ferrandino’s niece and nephew, Abbey and Owen McWhirter, led the assembled lawmakers, staff and guests in the Pledge of Allegiance.

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 at the state Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Calling the 27 new House members “an outstanding infusion of talent and energy,” Ferrandino welcomed the record number of incoming lawmakers and made a pitch for viewing government as a solution, not a problem.
“The work we do in this room matters to families beyond these walls. We understand that the impact of government is significant, immediate and enduring,” he said.

House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, escorts his daughter Camille on the House floor on Wednesday at the Capitol. Camille fashioned commemorative rings for the occasion and delivered them to Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“When disaster strikes, our government is there to help. When a wildfire roars into Colorado Springs or a madman opens fire in an Aurora theater, our government responds. In those urgent and impossible moments, it is our government — in the form of police officers, firefighters and paramedics — that is first on the scene,” he said, adding that government doesn’t just fill a need in emergencies.

State Reps. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, enjoy the opening day hubbub in the Colorado House.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” Ferrandino said, quoting Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, the former congressman who was among the country’s first openly gay lawmakers.

Former House Speakers Andrew Romanoff, Terrence Carroll and Ruben Valdez take the pledge of allegiance at the start of opening day ceremonies in the Colorado House. The three were the most recent Democrats to lead the chamber before Mark Ferrandino took the gavel this week.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

In a nod to the chamber’s Republicans — the GOP fell from a one-seat majority to a nine-seat deficit in the November election — Ferrandino urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to set aside rigidly partisan approaches.

“It is reasonable to debate the size and scope of our government and its institutions,” he said. “But to blindly and cynically condemn government is to willfully ignore the many ways it makes our lives more secure and contributes to our shared prosperity. Likewise, to blindly defend government is to ignore the fact that, like any human institution, it can be improved.”

Incoming state Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, and his son John pose for a snapshot on opening day at the legislature Wednesday in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Earlier, the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus serenaded the proceedings from the gallery on high. It was a stark reversal from the chaotic night eight months earlier when epithets and threats rained down on then-Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, after the House had ground to a halt on the penultimate night of the session when Republican leaders blocked a vote on a civil unions bill, taking down dozens of other proposed laws with it.

With the Democrats in full control of the legislature and the governor’s office, this year’s attempt to establish legal recognition for same-sex unions is expected to sail into law quickly. The bill was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday with the names of every Democratic legislator — and one Republican, state Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen — attached.

Calling McNulty a friend, Ferrandino accepted the gavel and handed the outgoing speaker the gavel’s sounding blocks, noting that the surface of one was nearly worn away.

McNulty had presided over the first part of the day, gaveling the chamber to order and welcoming chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, Michael Bender, who administered the oath of office to the 37 Democrats and 28 Republicans. Before relinquishing his position, McNulty offered some advice to lawmakers.

“For those of you who are returning members, you know the roller coaster that we will be on for the next 120 days. For the new members, you’re going to learn quickly. The opening day is always one of promise, one of opportunity, one of great expectations. Let us not lose this feeling that we have here today as we begin our work here this session,” he said.

In his opening remarks, Ferrandino stressed what he referred to as the three C’s —consultation, consensus and cooperation. “When we consult with one another to achieve consensus, we expect to succeed,” he said. “When we go it alone, the path to success is far steeper and narrower. The legislature is no place for rugged individualists.”

Ferrandino outlined broad policy goals around boosting the state’s tepid economic recovery and restoring funding to the state’s education system, which he termed “our single largest economic driver.”

He talked about his own experience sur-mounting learning disabilities: “I wouldn’t be standing here today without a lot of extra help from teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists. I want to make sure that kids who are sitting in the position I was in, who are sitting in special education classes across Colorado, know that if they set their mind to it, if they work hard, they can achieve whatever they want.”

And in a line that provoked perhaps the day’s loudest laughs, calling her “one of my favorite authors,” Ferrandino quoted conservative darling Ayn Rand to support the civil unions legislation. “‘The political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities,’” he said. “In that spirit, we must acknowledge that all committed couples deserve equal protection under the law, forever end Colorado’s ‘hate state’ nickname, and, with bipartisan cooperation, pass civil unions this year.”

Referencing last summer’s shooting at an Aurora movie theater and last month’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, Ferrandino said that the legislature will grapple with gun control policy.

“The Second Amendment is sacrosanct,” he said. “But so is the First. It is our right — and the time is right — to speak openly and honestly about how we can curb the gun violence that costs our communities far too many sons and daughters.”

Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, made similar pleas for bipartisan cooperation in his remarks and sketched an agenda aimed at creating opportunity for the state’s residents.

“Friends, we begin our work on the heels of a difficult election season, but the time for political grandstanding is past,” Waller said, adding, “I pledge to you that House Republicans will do everything in our power to build the coalitions we need to strengthen our state together.”

U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, Doug Lamborn and Ed Perlmutter, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb were among the dignitaries lining the walls on the House floor to witness the occasion, which was peppered with the usual lighthearted notes.

In a House tradition, speaker after speaker mocked the Senate, Ferrandino even quipping that his 1-year-old foster daughter, Lila, was unable to sit in the House because she was working with Senate leaders to finalize that chamber’s rules.

After returning from the other side of the Capitol and fulfilling the official duty of notifying the Senate that the House was organized and under way, delegation head state Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, apologized for taking so long and added, “What we learned over in the Senate is that patience is a virtue.”

After her delegation returned from the governor’s office delivering a similar notification, state Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, told the chamber, “The governor wanted to let us know that he was glad it was a notification and not a warning, and that he’s excited about all the opportunities we have this year to work together and solve problems, and that he has plenty of ink in his ink well to sign the bills.”

Reflecting on the new session — his first in the majority — state Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, said he was anxious to get to work but also mindful of the different situation.

“There’s a real responsibility now,” he said. “Last year, being in the minority, is a little bit easier. You can come up with good ideas but you don’t necessarily have to know how to implement them, and the real challenge this year is doing things in a fair way, making sure our door is open to both sides of the aisle, and putting something in place that isn’t only a good idea but works.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com