Cowan serves short but busy tenure in Massachusetts Senate seat

Sen. William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass.) has some departing advice for the incoming interim New Jersey Sen. Jeff Chiesa (R): Act as if you belong.

Cowan can relate. He was similarly picked in January to temporarily fill the open seat in Massachusetts until the state’s special election at the end of this month.

“Do the best you can for the people who sent you here even though they may not have elected you — but you have to act as if they did,” Cowan advised during an interview with The Hill.

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Cowan is soon to leave a growing caucus of unelected senators serving out the terms of their predecessors who have either retired, been promoted or died. 

When then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) left office to lead the State Department in January, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) named Cowan, his former chief of staff, to fill the vacancy with the caveat that he would not compete in the special election. 

In a similar move last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) set a special election in October to fill the seat left open by Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) death. He appointed Chiesa, the state’s attorney general, who will serve only until the special election is decided. 

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) round out the group, though both occupy a slightly different niche since they will run for reelection in 2014.  

Cowan said he has formed a particular bond with Scott. They are the first two African American members to serve at the same time. The Senate has seen only eight African American senators in its history.

On top of that, both grew up in the Carolinas — Cowan in the North, Scott in the South.

“I feel some kinship with Tim in that, yes, he is another African American in the body,” he said. “I don’t shy away from that — even though we may have different political experiences. Just in chatting with him, we have had some similar and same life experiences.”

Though both were appointed, voters could popularly elect Scott in 2014. Another African American, Cory Booker (D), is poised to run in New Jersey for Chiesa’s seat. 

But the end of Cowan’s five-month term, as he puts it, “is drawing nigh.” And he has no intentions of ever running again. Instead, Massachusetts voters will decide June 25 between Republican Gabriel Gomez and Democrat Ed Markey to take over the seat for the next year and a half. 

Despite having a shelf life, Cowan said he feels accepted by his colleagues. He serves as chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee on Nutrition, Specialty Crops and Food and Agricultural Research and has introduced a number of amendments to the farm bill.

“I don’t feel that in my time here I have been marginalized or been treated less than anyone else,” Cowan said.

Cowan was thrust into the national spotlight at a particularly heavy time for any Massachusetts elected official, appointed or otherwise. 

The Senate debated gun control and passed a budget. It could vote on immigration reform before Cowan’s tenure is finished. But the most lasting memory from his term will likely be the Boston marathon bombings. 

Cowan and his staff had been quietly debating which issue he should highlight in his maiden floor speech. They tentatively decided on an address emphasizing his support for the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states to collect online sales tax from out-of-state purchases. 

Then everything changed. On April 16, one day after the bombings, Cowan and his Massachusetts colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) both addressed the attacks in their speeches.

Cowan spoke about the resilience of Bostonians in the face of evil and vowed that the culprits would be found and brought to justice.

“The moment called for Elizabeth and me to talk about what was happening right then,” Cowan said. “And I was proud to stand up there and speak about the people and resiliency in Boston.”

It was a moment almost out of place for a man whose previous job allowed him to operate behind the scenes as chief of staff to the Massachusetts governor.

Cowan had helped run Patrick’s administration for most of the governor’s second term. He served as chief legal counsel for a year before that. One of the hardest things for Cowan to adapt to was his transition to center stage. 

“I was never an out-front kind of guy,” he said. “So I had to adjust to being out front. You know, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I never had to talk to reporters before, and I was perfectly OK with that.  One of the earliest adjustments for me was transitioning from the role of handler to being the role of the handled.”

Cowan recounted the abundance of incoming advice he received immediately after being appointed.  People advised him to quickly change his cellphone number and deactivate his Twitter account. 

His personal account remains active but has been used only sparingly since taking office — with two tweets highlighting Patrick’s leadership in the wake of the bombings, a link to his official Senate account and congratulations on the engagement of two former colleagues. 

But the hiatus is likely only temporary. 

“This remains a very, very short political career,” he said.