Mo Takes His Turn

[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.

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.

Unlike Warren, 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 rapidly approaching.”

He 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 Business.

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.

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