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Colorado’s New House Speaker Conquered Adversity

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Rep. Mark Ferrandino (credit: CBS)

Rep. Mark Ferrandino (credit: CBS)

DENVER (AP) – Deprived of oxygen at birth, Mark Ferrandino didn’t learn to read and write at the same pace as other children.

He took special education classes. He was picked on, called names, had his big glasses thrown from the school bus window.

“It made me who I am in a lot of ways. It made the person who cares a lot about people who are not in the mainstream of society, who are not seen as the people who have all the opportunities,” said the Denver Democratic representative, who at 35 is poised to become Colorado’s House speaker in January.

The achievement is notable of itself. But Ferrandino will be the first openly gay lawmaker in Colorado to hold that honor.

It’s happening just six years after Colorado voters banned gay marriage, and 20 years after voters prohibited municipalities from passing laws to protect gays from discrimination.

That law earned Colorado the moniker of a “hate state.” It later was declared unconstitutional.

There are two other openly gay lawmakers, one in California and one in Rhode Island, who are House speakers, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Victory Fund, which supports gay candidates. A lesbian lawmaker in Oregon is also expected to become speaker.

Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesman, said lawmakers and voters have become more comfortable in electing openly gay candidates and trusting them to lead.

“We’re getting to the point now where people are seeing them as viable leaders who are really fighting for the things that everybody is fighting for,” Dison said.

Colorado Democrats went from a one-vote minority in the House to a comfortable 37-28 majority after this month’s elections. Part of Ferrandino’s job will be to unify a chamber that exploded with bitterness in May, when Republicans filibustered to defeat legislation to grant same-sex couples civil unions. Ferrandino had sponsored the bill.

Ferrandino’s family says he doesn’t hold grudges, and they note he’s friends on Facebook with the boy who threw his glasses from the bus.

“Everyone says today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend or ally in politics,” Ferrandino said. “If you don’t talk to your enemies of today, you’re never going to have allies for tomorrow.”

With Democrats in control of the House, and their retention of the Senate this month, they’ll be able to pass civil unions and dictate in large part the state’s economic agenda for the next two years.

“I think the House Democrats have chosen wisely,” said Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman. “I think Mark is very empathetic. He’s very comfortable putting himself in the shoes of others because at some point in his life he’s worn just about everybody’s shoes.”

Growing up in Bardonia, New York, about 40 minutes north of Manhattan, Ferrandino caught up with his twin sister academically by the time he was in junior high school.

He played football and was in the marching band in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics and a master’s in public policy analysis from the University of Rochester.

Ferrandino and his partner moved to Colorado nine years ago. He was selected to the Colorado House by a vacancy committee in 2007 after a lawmaker left and was elected to his first full term in 2008.

His parents said they supported his wish to run for office, knowing that it was a dream for the boy who used to watch political programs instead of cartoons. But they were worried.

“The concern was more of the fact that he was a gay man, openly gay man running for office and what that could attract in terms of negative responses,” said Stephanie Ferrandino, 65. “I don’t want him hurt. I think that was our biggest fear when he told us he was gay.”

As speaker, Ferrandino will wield tremendous power, dictating who leads committees and influencing the outcome of legislation by choosing where it gets assigned. He’ll also be a key negotiator with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper on the budget.

Ferrandino’s parents cried as he recalled his childhood struggles in a speech after his selection as House speaker Nov. 8.

“He’s done a lot of things to make his parents proud over the years,” said John Ferrandino, 67. “This is the most public thing.”

- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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