Colorado House Speaker Mark Ferrandino
Matthew’s Place interview with Mark Ferrandino, a legislator in Colorado and the Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives. Interviewed by Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Jason Marsden: Speaker Mark Ferrandino, thank you for joining us for an interview with MatthewsPlace.com.
Mark, for those who don’t know you, you are the speaker of the Colorado State House of Representatives and the first openly gay person to serve in that role. You are also a policy, and particularly a budget expert and you are also a new father. You are reasonably new to the legislature for holding this leadership position. You are a young man. You were just named by The Advocate magazine to their prestigious annual 40 under 40 of accomplished, young LGBT leaders in the country, so congratulations on that. Thanks for speaking with us.
Mark Ferrandino: Thanks for having me. Well, you did say I was relatively new to the legislature. This is my sixth session. I only have one session more before I’m thrown out due through term limits. It moves quickly in this state given term limits.
JM: When you came to the legislature you were an appointee filling a vacant seat. Did you intend initially to compete for and try to move up through ranks of leadership or did that sort of unfold as things sometimes do in politics?
MF: Politics, I always say, is always about being in the right place at the right time or sometimes the wrong place. But I actually always wanted to be on the joint budget committee and be chair of the budget committee and really work on budget policy issues, as you said. That’s kind of my area of expertise and what I’m passionate about.
I was on the budget committee for three years and then minority leader Sal Pace…stepped aside to run for congress. I just felt like I was in the right place at the right time to take the step out of the joint budget committee and onto leadership. So, I served as minority leader for a year and then worked really hard to make sure the Democrats took back the house. We were able to do that, and I was honored by my colleagues to be selected to lead…the entire chamber.
JM: So, one of the things the people around the country may recognize your name from is that Colorado just quite recently passed civil unions legislation, which will take effect on the first of May. We, here in Colorado, know the story behind why we have civil unions and not same-sex marriage, but maybe in a nutshell to those listeners who don’t know our background on this issue, how is it that we arrived at civil unions being the stopping point, currently, at least for LGBT relationships?
MF: In Colorado in 2006, there was a ballot initiative to define marriage between one man and one woman, and that did pass, unfortunately, at the ballot box. I opposed it and a lot of people opposed it…At the legislature we take an oath to uphold the constitution, and so the only option that was left to us was to be able to go and get civil unions, which provides needed protections for LGBT families throughout the state.
You know, some wanted us to wait until we could amend the constitution. In Colorado, you need two thirds of the legislature in both chambers and the vote of the people to be able to do that. And we don’t have two thirds of the legislature wiling to vote for that. We will continue to push for that. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately. But I do think we will probably see within the next five to ten years a petition process to try and change that to ensure that we have full marriage equality. So, the fight for civil unions was important, but as Senator Steadman said, it is a huge step but not the final step towards full equality.
JM: In the meantime, of course, if a child is one or two years old, right now, they may well be into their teens before all of these political questions surrounding the constitutional amendment are resolved. So, the civil unions protections have sort of time value because people’s lives are going to proceed in the meantime through relationship changes and parenting issues and inheritances and other important legal issues for families.
MF: Yeah, exactly. And as a new father we are fostering a daughter and hopefully adopting her soon. I see first hand now the importance of those protections for families to make sure that, you know, not just the two people who are the couple but also for any child…they can make sure that child is protected. I’m really glad we were able to take this significant step this year.
JM: Agreed. Well, in the meantime, people who know about you largely though policy or political or newsmaker lens, but Mark Ferrandino, the person, you mentioned that you and your partner are fostering to adopt. You also have some life history with bullying, yourself personally and you also have, as a policy maker, some understanding of how educators and government intersect with that issue. Would you mind talking a little bit about your personal experience with bullying and how that informs your work as a policy maker?
MF: Sure, so when I was born and I had a learning disability. Actually, I have a twin sister and both of us went to different elementary schools because at that time only one of the 10 elementary schools in our district, where I was growing up in New York, had special education. So I went to different school. (I) literally rode the short bus and was in self-contained classes, and there was a lot of bullying especially by students outside of the special ed classes of kids in special ed. We are talking early ‘80s, mid-80s when special ed was just kind of starting, and there wasn’t the support networks and understanding what the consequences are by putting kids in self contained classes and what that did (to children). A lot of that has changed now, thankfully. But I always…talk about a story…I remember I was riding the bus one day, it was in fifth grade, and a kid took my glasses and threw them out the window. That was not uncommon to have that type of bullying – especially in elementary and junior high. I know that first hand. Both of my parents are teachers and educators. As a legislator, I’ve been able to see both from my own experience what my parents told me and then experience from constituents as I have talked to them.
There is an important role that policymakers can play in terms of reducing bullying, creating safe environments especially within schools. Kids, the most important thing that we need to do as a government and a society is make sure that our kids are educated, and they can’t be educated unless they feel safe in the environment they are at, and if they are being bullied, picked on and now especially with cyber bullying – something that I didn’t have to face when I was a kid. It is something that we have to take very seriously because education is key and making sure there’s a safe environment.
So, we passed laws couple years ago around bullying. We are continuing to look at the topic, (which) comes up very frequently at the legislature. I think policymakers need to make sure we are staying on top of it to try make sure districts and individual schools have the policies in place to make sure kids have safe environments.
JM: Another aspect of institutional diversity that’s going on in your world right now is that there’s reasonably strong LGBT diversity in the Colorado legislature itself and particularly after the 2012 election. When you were first, presumably as a much younger man, contemplating running for office, did you did you feel being gay was going to be an extra complicating factor in trying to have a political career? How, if so, has your thinking about the changed in light of some the last few elections especially here in Colorado?
MF: We’re sitting in a historic legislative session with eight LGBT members of the House and Senate, which is 8% because we have 100 members. It’s the highest percentage of LGBT members in any legislature in the country. That is amazing for it to be in Colorado, where just over 20 years ago we passed Amendment 2, which…got struck down by the courts, but limited the rights of LGBT individuals in our state.
When I was interested in politics, it started from a very young age. As I understood and came to grips with my sexual orientation, (being gay) was something that definitely worried me in terms of politics, but as I got more involved in politics and as I was able to see the changes of our society, I knew it became less of issue. So, it was always a concern of mine. When I first ran, I was worried that it would become an issue. It never became an issue, and you know, I represent, it at that time, west central Denver, and there was a lot of support. I was very open and honest about who I was. But now with eight members, we are seeing members that are not just from Denver but…from the suburbs of Denver from Fort Collins… It’s really good that we are seeing LGBT people (get) elected from districts across the state.
JM: Now you got enough diversity of LGBT members in the legislature that any individual one of them is not necessarily thought of as the gay legislator or expected…to fill that role. But now there are openly gay legislators who are thought of as experts in family law or experts on the budget, as you are. To some extent, it’s showing a diversity of the LGBT and not just the diversity of Colorado citizens themselves. It shows that LGBT people have other interests in their political careers besides LGBT policy issues.
MF: When I first started, I made a concerted effort. I was, at the time, only the second out LGBT member of the legislature and the first to be elected as an openly gay man. I made a concerted effort not to be running on LGBT issues and to make sure that I wasn’t how I was defined.
I kept telling people, “I’m not a gay lawmaker. I’m a lawmaker who happens to be gay.” We’ve had such great legislators who represent their districts well. (They) happen to be gay (and) are dealing with such complex issues. (Look) at people like Pat Steadman who is now the chair of the budget committee and is an expert on the budget and criminal justice issues. Representative (Joann) Ginal from Fort Collins…is really delving into health issues, and she has a PhD in endocrinology. You know, taking all of those life experiences and bringing them is really important.
But it is also, when we have debates like civil unions, important that you have members of the chambers that can say, “This is how this impacts our family.” Those conversations really change tenor of the debate on the floor of the House and Senate because when members who might not support civil unions have to look at their colleagues in the face and know this directly impacts them and their families and their loved ones. It really makes people sit back and think, “Do I really want to fight this? Though I might not support it, I respect my colleagues and I understand why they are fighting for it.” We had a great debate on civil unions this year both in the House and the Senate, I think, largely due to the fact that we are large percentage of LGBT members.
JM: So, maybe in closing, you’ve mentioned before that you were struck…15 years ago and when Matthew Shepard was murdered. (You said) were struck by that case and (said) it affected your thinking about the position that LGBT people occupy in our society. Discuss that a little bit and how things have changed in the last 15 years since then.
MF: When that happened I was in college at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, and I’d been involved in politics and really cared about policy issues but (wasn’t involved in) LGBT issues. I had just really come out and told people that I was gay. When (Matthew was murdered) what shocked me first was how our campus mobilized. There was a candlelight vigil on campus with hundreds of people who showed up. (That’s) something you would not think would happen so far away. My campus wasn’t very politically active. It’s not something typical of our university at that time. To see that really shocked me and that it had such an impact on people. It had an impact on myself. I realized, at that time, I cared about politics and policy, but I couldn’t just care about it from issues that didn’t relate to LGBT (people). I had to get involved in LGBT issues. I had to make sure that while I was in politics and policy that part of that fight that I was doing was for LGBT equality to ensure that things like what happened to Matthew wouldn’t happen to the kids in my community and across country.
JM : Well said. Well, Mark Ferrandino. The Honorable Mark Ferrandino, speaker of the Colorado the House of Representatives, thank you very much for your time today. I know you’re busy at the legislature. On behalf of all us who need governing on a daily basis, thanks a lot for taking time to meet and speak with Matthew’s Place. Our best wishes to you in everything you have done on behalf of the community and the public at large. Thank you.
MF: Thanks for having me and all the work you do for people across this country.