Appointing Mo Cowan interim US senator is such a Deval Patrick thing to do.
The governor loves to ignore conventional wisdom. And he likes to start uncomfortable conversations. And so he chose someone with a low profile, a trusted aide — a crony, critics will doubtless say — who also happens to be African-American.
Today, as many of us wonder who the heck this Cowan guy is, we’re also talking about the appalling fact that, in 2013, there are no elected black US senators currently serving — only the two appointed by their governors in recent weeks. That’s a discussion we need to have.
The symbolism was in plain sight at Wednesday morning’s announcement.
“My mother told me days like today were possible,” said Cowan, who rose from a childhood surrounded by the baldest-possible racism in rural North Carolina to become an immensely successful attorney and a governor’s chief of staff.
Beyond its inspirational qualities, the Cowan appointment says a lot about Patrick’s priorities. He chose somebody who — despite his proximity to its center for the last couple of years — is decidedly not into the blood sport of Beacon Hill, or the nation’s capital.
“He is not a super political guy at all,” said his friend Michael Connolly, a partner at Mintz Levin, where Cowan was also a partner. “He has an impeccable sense of judgment, and he has tremendous follow-through. . . . He’s very thoughtful, but he’s not a lover of the limelight.”
Cowan is an issues guy, who knows the hurdles facing Massachusetts as well as, or better than, anybody else whose name was thrown out in the speculation of recent weeks. He has been at Patrick’s side every day as he grappled with the economic crisis, health care costs, and scores of other dilemmas. A Senator Cowan will understand immediately how Washington affects his constituents. In him, Patrick — already pretty well connected down there — has a more direct line to Washington than ever.
But does that make Cowan a better pick for the state than, say, former congressman Barney Frank, who lobbied hard and publicly for the job? There would have been no learning curve for Frank. He knows how Capitol Hill works, how deals get done. Right away, he would have thrown his high profile into hyperpartisan donnybrooks over spending and gun control. What fun it would have been to have Frank on the floor during those debates.
But would it have been effective? Let’s remember, this is a five-month gig. That’s a pretty small window. Just ask Paul Kirk, the longtime Ted Kennedy confidant appointed to Kennedy’s Senate seat after his death in 2009.
“It’s like getting on a bullet train with 99 other senators already in their seats and fully briefed,” said Kirk, who held the job for just over four months. “They’re all going to the end of the line, but you’re getting off at the next stop.”
In his time in the Senate, Kirk was the 60th vote for the health care legislation his old friend championed. There was little time to make more of a mark than that.
“There isn’t really time to put together legislation,” Kirk said. “Most of the senators have built up their own alliances, and they realize [an interim senator] is not going to be there all that long.”
As interim senator, Kirk also had his hands full with more mundane — but no less important — pursuits: making sure the thousands of constituents with open case files in Kennedy’s office found resolution, or another official willing to help them with their Medicare disputes and immigration woes. It’s not glamorous stuff, but it’s a huge part of the job, and one for which Cowan, the king of follow-through, is uniquely qualified.
Beyond that, Cowan will take the votes Patrick and other Democrats need him to. He’ll do it quietly, and thoughtfully. Then he’ll be done with politics for good.
This is a safe, sensible appointment, though it won’t be nearly as entertaining as the brilliant, cantankerous Frank would be. But it wouldn’t have been like the governor to pick Frank.
He picked someone from his own shop, with an up-from-nothing story like his own. The only pick who would have been more Patrick is Patrick himself.