In choosing an interim senator to serve for almost five months, a governor should have one overriding priority: Providing the best possible representation for the people of Massachusetts. The quality of that representation can be measured not only by the character of the person chosen, but by the amount of clout the appointee brings to a short tenure in the Senate.
William “Mo” Cowan, Governor Patrick’s choice to fill the next four months of John Kerry’s term, has the requisite character, a solid knowledge of statewide issues, and has sounded the right notes of confidence and humility. But at 43, with only his stints as Patrick’s legal counsel and chief of staff as top-level credentials, Cowan counts as a surprising — and disappointing — choice. Simply put, Massachusetts is brimming over with political talent, including many potential picks of greater stature than Cowan, and many with vastly greater national experience.
Patrick’s potential high-profile picks included former three-term governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee; Victoria Reggie Kennedy, who could have drawn on personal friendships with senators and the president and vice president; former Representative Barney Frank, whose budgetary expertise would have given him instant credibility; long-serving former Representative John Olver; and former Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield, a national expert on scientific research and innovation, who co-chaired the steering committee of President Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.
In the weeks leading up to the selection, Patrick emphasized his desire to diversify the Commonwealth’s leadership by picking a woman or a person of color. Cowan, who will be the state’s second African-American senator, could be an important role model for young black men. Still, the Bay State, with an African-American governor and three women in statewide elected office, isn’t entirely without diverse role models. Neither that consideration nor, frankly, personal friendship — Cowan is, foremost, a Patrick protege — should outweigh the need for Washington experience and clout when it comes to representing Massachusetts’s interests. At a moment when a new Congress is grappling with budget and immigration policies with profound implications for the Massachusetts economy, Patrick passed over candidates with infinite varieties of national experience in favor of one with none.
An interim seat in the US Senate isn’t the kind of appointment for which governors deserve wide deference; in making the pick, Patrick should have been acting for the Massachusetts electorate, choosing the best person for the job. This isn’t comparable to a staff position or cabinet secretary, for which dedication to the governor and his priorities should be an important consideration. Cowan’s stature derives mainly from his closeness to Patrick. But that won’t count for enough in the US Senate.
Still, none of this diminishes the fact that Cowan is a qualified public servant who deserves the best wishes of his now-constituents.