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Ferrandino: Dems' busy leader

Between the Lines



Spend an hour with Mark Ferrandino, and you quickly understand why the Denver state representative has risen to become speaker of the Colorado House.

You don't think about the fact that he's only 35, or that he's the first openly gay state House speaker. You forget the fascinating details of his life, how he rose from being in special-education classes until fourth grade to a master's degree in public policy, excelling as a pole vaulter and in playing the trumpet (which he still does).

Those details don't matter, though, when we discuss what to expect from the 2013 General Assembly, which convenes this week. As Ferrandino describes the Democrats' House agenda, outlining top priorities (jobs and education) as well as stickier issues (marijuana and gun control), it becomes obvious how perfectly suited Ferrandino is for his position.

He knows every nuance of every critical bill on the Legislature's plate. He answers each question with a smooth, easygoing demeanor, not condescending in any way. His expertise as a charismatic leader comes across so thoroughly, you soon realize why many observers believe Ferrandino has only begun to tap his political potential.

Could he become Colorado's next governor? Or, with just two years before he's term-limited in the House, might he first move up to run for the state Senate? Or, who knows, someday Congress?

What's more important in the months ahead will be how adeptly Ferrandino can operate with Democrats in charge of the state House and Senate, along with having Gov. John Hickenlooper as Colorado's chief executive.

Many Republicans assume the Dems already have a complete battle plan put together by the triumvirate of Hickenlooper, Ferrandino and Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs. Listen to Ferrandino, and you realize that's not the case. He'll work with the governor on some issues, but he and Morse don't have a synchronized strategy. For now, Ferrandino cares more about making other lawmakers look good, as he did in our visit by allowing local Reps. Pete Lee and Tony Exum to outline their early-filed bills.

If there's a common thread in Dems' plans, it's bringing back and refining legislation that didn't make the House floor when Republicans were in charge. One example is Lee's "economic gardening" bill to help small businesses, which has worked in many other states, and another giving preference to Colorado companies in awarding state contracts. Exum is pushing bills to assist unemployed veterans in finding work and to help jobless people avoid draining their savings before qualifying for unemployment benefits.

"We're making an effort to use our majority more in alignment with issues that people care about," Ferrandino says. In response to calls for tougher gun-related laws, he talks about focusing on mental heath, not taking guns from people.

Rest assured, civil unions will come up, but not as a lightning-rod issue. Ferrandino stresses that the same bill would've passed last year if GOP leaders (then with a thin House majority) hadn't maneuvered to kill it. For the record, this legislation would not legalize gay marriage — it would allow civil-union partners to have basic rights, such as shared insurance and access to hospital visits.

Ferrandino says neither party wants to move too fast with many bills, for one reason. Of the House's 65 members, 27 (more than 40 percent) never have been lawmakers. So the agenda will move slowly "until everyone gets a better sense of their footing."

There will be plenty of big stuff down the line. After the governor's bipartisan marijuana task force makes its recommendations in late February, the Legislature must decide how to implement Amendment 64. And the state budget must wait until after the March revenue forecast, which Ferrandino sees as fortunate because "we also can wait to see what happens in Congress and then react to it."

It all sounds so sensible. If Ferrandino has his way, this Legislature won't be about confrontation and acrimony. He wants consensus, not Democrats ramming their wish list down everybody else's throat.

If he can do that, we'll be hearing a lot more about Mark Ferrandino for years to come.

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