DENVER (AP) — Colorado Democrats elected the first openly gay House speaker in state history Thursday, giving control of the chamber to a man who was the public face of a fierce debate over civil union legislation that Republicans defeated six months ago.
In an emotional speech witnessed by his tearful parents, Denver Democratic Rep. Mark Ferrandino thanked his colleagues for nominating him for the chamber's highest honor.
"I am so humbled by the honor of being able to do this, and I told myself I wasn't going to cry," he said, before detailing his childhood in Bardonia, N.Y., where he was picked on and called names because he had learning disabilities and was in special education classes.
"To be where I am, to have your support to do that is, is awesome," said Ferrandino, 35.
Democrats regained control of the House this week after being the minority party in the chamber for two years, when the Republicans had a 33-32 advantage. After Tuesday's elections, Democrats have control by a comfortable margin — 37-28.
There are currently two openly gay House speakers in state legislatures: John Perez in California and Gordon Fox in Rhode Island, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
Ferrandino's ascent is particularly notable in a state where voters banned gay marriage six years ago, and banned municipalities from passing laws to protect gays from discrimination 20 years ago, earning Colorado the moniker of being a "hate state."
The cheers from Democrats in a committee room in the basement of the Capitol where they elected Ferrandino could be heard periodically across the hall in the room where Republicans held their own leadership elections.
Rep. Mark Waller of El Paso County was chosen to lead House Republicans. He told his colleagues that their role is still meaningful, even though they're now in the minority.
"In fact I would make the argument that we have an even greater responsibility now," he said. He urged them to do their best to "make sure we're doing what we can to represent the people of this state."
"I suggest to you the absolute best way that we can do that is to stand up, respectfully dissent when we need to do that, but also agree with the other side when that's the appropriate thing to do," he said.
In the Senate, Democrats maintained their majority and elected Sen. John Morse of Colorado Springs their president. Morse was chosen over Denver Sen. Pat Steadman, another openly gay lawmaker.
Morse told his colleagues before the vote that he'd work with colleagues in the other party, but he signaled he'd fight for his party.
"Here in the Senate, we use our power very judiciously, but the reality is we have it and the people elected us to use it. And so we do need to use it," Morse said.
He added, "If they wanted the Republicans in charge, they would've voted for more Republicans."
Sen. Bill Cadman of El Paso County will be Republican leader in the Senate.
Ferrandino's election won't be official until lawmakers reconvene in January. When it happens, Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty — blamed by Democrats for killing civil unions with a filibuster in May — will be handing the gavel to Ferrandino.
"Mark's a good friend," McNulty said of Ferrandino. "We've been friends for a long time and I know that he will do his best. We all have the best interests of Coloradoans at heart, though we have different ways to get there and different philosophical perspectives."
With majorities in both chambers, Democrats have said they will pass civil unions early next year.
"Being able to the first openly gay speaker of the House is definitely something that's humbling" he said. "It puts a little bit more on my shoulders in terms of making sure that I'm representing and speaking for the community."
But he said he also has a broader responsibility.
"I have to represent all five million people in Colorado as the speaker of the House," he said.