[See also "Mrs. Warren Goes To Washington"]
Elizabeth Warren and William “Mo”
Cowan seem to be the happiest Senate delegation in the country.
Warren appears gleeful over the prospect of fulfilling her life's
work; Cowan, on the other hand, has the bemused and slightly
befuddled giddiness of someone who has won an unexpected sweepstakes.
Governor Deval Patrick informed Cowan
just a day before announcing publicly that he would be the appointed
interim Senator, replacing newly-confirmed Secretary of State John
Kerry until a special election to be held in June. A week later,
Cowan was in the well of the Senate, being sworn in by Vice President
Joe Biden. Looking on was his mother, fresh off knee surgery, who
ignored doctor's orders to drive to the capital.
“It was, and has been, a whirlwind,”
says 43-year-old Cowan, grinning broadly, eyes shining behind rimless
glasses; his face as perky and playful as his black bow tie festooned
with multi-colored paisley patterns. “This has been a remarkable
experience, but also a surreal experience.”
I interviewed Cowan in his temporary
office in the Dirksen Senate building, where the lobby directory
still lists Senator John Kerry as Warren's colleague. He isn't even
in his permanent space for his temporary assignment; he is squatting
in Scott Brown's old office until Kerry's is ready for him to move
In retrospect, Cowan is a logical
choice. He had just wrapped up four years in Patrick's
administration, first as chief legal counsel and then as chief of
staff. He was thus free of entanglements for a short-term stint in
Washington, before his intended return to private law practice. He
had also just spent four years fully immersed in pretty much every
issue affecting Massachusetts.
“I have intimate knowledge of how
things down here [in Washington] impact things back home,” he says,
citing for example the way the sequester budget cuts could squeeze
important research being conducted. The
same recent experience helps him deal with constituent services.
It has also
helped that he has carried over some of Kerry's staff, including his
Massachusetts director of the past 10 years, Drew O'Brien, who has
been a staple of state politics since writing speeches for Tom Menino
in the mid-1990s.
who is settling in for her first six-year term, Cowan is on a
six-month contract with no option for renewal. But he does not intend
to be a mere placeholder. Paul Kirk, the interim Senator appointed by
Patrick after Ted Kennedy's death in 2009, advised him to “enjoy
the experience – but be a Senator in full,” Cowan says.
He is trying to
find concrete ways to do that, within the limited time he has. “I
have my eye on the calendar,” he says. “June 25th is
has put particular energy into his position on the Agriculture
Committee – the first Bay Stater assigned there since 1879.
He hopes to have significant input on the farm bill coming soon from
that committee. Cowan is also trying to find ways to bring relief to
the Massachusetts fishing industry; an issue, he notes, that cuts
across all three of his committees: Agriculture, Commerce, and Small
Agricultural policy is less of a
stretch than you might assume; he was born and raised in the rural
town of Yadkinville, population 2800, in northwest North Carolina.
He credits Patrick with his political
education, and says that he is in frequent touch with members of the
governor's administration, and periodically with Patrick himself. But
Cowan laughs off the notion that he is a puppet, or that he must
clear his moves with the man who appointed him. “I think the
governor has confidence in my ability and judgment,” he says.
Cowan, who is staying with relatives
in the area, says that he has no intention of heading back to
Washington once his stint ends in June. He lives in Stoughton, in
Congressman Steve Lynch's district, but insists he has no interest in
run for Congress if Lynch becomes the new Senator. He has not caught
the political bug; he still can't seem to quite wrap his mind around
what it means to be a Senator. He can't get over chatting with John
McCain on the Senate floor, for instance, and was a bit thrown when I
noted that people will forever call him “Mr. Senator.”
Cowan is trying to keep a low profile;
he turned down interview requests, including one from MSNBC's “The
Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell,” when he co-sponsored a
resolution asking President Barack Obama to pardon early-20th-century
boxer Jack Johnson. The media interest in that resolution surprised
him, Cowan told me. As he's discovering, you get that kind of
attention when you're a US Senator, even a temporary one.