DENVER – Democrats regained control of the Colorado House of Representatives on Tuesday after two years in the minority.
Their victory paves the way for the passage of bills on gay rights and tuition discounts for children of illegal immigrants in 2013.
Republicans entered the election with the slimmest of majorities, 33 seats to 32, and were counting on a handful of incumbents like Ignacio Rep. J. Paul Brown to successfully defend their seats.
But along with Brown, Republican incumbents were on their way to losses in the Denver suburbs, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. With several races remaining to be called late Tuesday night, Democrats thought they were on pace to pick up six seats for a 38-27 majority.
Democrats also held on to their majority in the state Senate.
The changing fortunes in the House means that Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, is likely to become to first openly gay person to be speaker of the house in Colorado. He was surprised by the margin of victory.
“You can ask my husband how much sleep I got (Monday) night about whether we were going to be in the majority,” Ferrandino said.
Ferrandino sponsored a bill last year that would have allowed civil unions for gay and lesbian partners, giving them many of the same legal rights as married couples.
But current Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, refused to bring the bill up for a vote on the penultimate day of the annual session. Democrats and two sympathetic Republicans tried to take over control of the House, but McNulty brought it to a halt, killing the civil-unions bill and two dozen others.
It was a historic breakdown of order in the House, and Democrats vowed that night to reclaim the House.
Ferrandino said Democrats would promote good ideas from any party.
“We are not going to run the House like we saw in this last year. We are going to run it so the people of Colorado can be proud of their House of Representatives,” Ferrandino told a room full of screaming Democrats at their Denver victory party.
The Democrats’ main campaign committee spent $2.7 million to take over the House, while the main Republican committee mustered just $1.2 million.
“We fully expected to get outspent again this year,” McNulty said. “It’s the way it is in Colorado. Democrats have more money than we do.”
But Ferrandino credited McNulty’s shutdown of the House to kill the civil-unions bill with getting Democratic volunteers and donors off the sidelines.
“It really motivated the Democratic base and donors – groups like Fight Back Colorado – to be engaged and active in this election,” he said.
Fight Back Colorado was formed exclusively to target Republicans who supported McNulty and opposed civil unions. Brown was one of the group’s targets.
Democrats also have said they want to allow children of illegal immigrants who graduate from Colorado high schools to get a discount on college tuition. That bill passed the Senate last year but died in a GOP-controlled House committee.
Republicans had dominated Colorado’s Legislature since the 1960s, but Democrats took over both chambers in 2004 and ran the show until 2010.
McNulty said he was proud of GOP candidates.
“Our work is not done. We will continue to push for an agenda that is focused on job creation and economic recovery. That is precisely what the people of Colorado expect from their elected officials,” he sai.