WASHINGTON — In four months, Senator William “Mo” Cowan has traveled with a congressional delegation to the Middle East, flown aboard Air Force One, and repeatedly visited the White House, where his wife, to her great delight, had her picture taken with Justin Timberlake.
But the Massachusetts Democrat acknowledges his life will soon be far less exciting, as he concludes his stint as a temporary US senator, last in seniority, leaving with little more than an asterisk on the congressional record.
“There is no Mo Cowan legacy,” he said in an interview in his temporary office, furnished regally with towering curtains and purple carpet by John F. Kerry, who occupied the office for 28 years before leaving to become secretary of state.
“If you’re an interim senator like I was, you don’t worry about legacy,” he said. “You worry about keeping the issues going, working on the constituent work, making sure people back home feel like they’re well represented. That’s it.”
Cowan traveled an unlikely path to the Senate. He was mostly unknown to the public as Governor Deval Patrick’s chief of staff. Then, in January, Patrick selected him to fill Kerry’s post until a replacement is elected in late June — either Democratic Representative Edward J. Markey or former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, a Republican.
Patrick had been under some pressure to select Barney Frank, the recently retired Newton representative, or someone else with more Capitol Hill experience. But the governor instead chose a confidant, known inside his administration for efficiently carrying out the governor’s will.
Now Cowan is part of an elite club, holding a gavel to open floor debate twice a week and casting votes on gun control and the budget.
The greatest reward could be his future earning potential. His status as a former senator might prove lucrative should he seek posts on corporate boards or management teams.
Cowan, who said again last week that he does not plan to seek elected office, will leave the Senate at age 44, his professional prime, with a contact list full of senators he now knows on a first-name basis and all the privileges that come with having served in the institution, including the right to step onto the Senate floor at will — as long as he is not a registered lobbyist.
A partner at Mintz Levin, the Boston-based politically connected law firm, before joining the Patrick administration in 2009, Cowan said he has not decided what he will do “when I grow up.” He says only that he would like to work in the private sector with a hand in the public sphere.
But he did not rule out becoming a lobbyist and said the profession has gotten an undeserved bad rap. If he chooses to lobby, Cowan would have to refrain from lobbying Congress for two years under Senate rules.
Although Cowan has had no time to make a legislative mark, he quickly became popular among his colleagues. Cowan acknowledged a frustration with the gridlock that characterizes Washington, but refused to blame individual senators, who he says are surprisingly friendly across party lines.
“The presumption is if there’s so much gridlock, people don’t like each other. People don’t engage each other,” he said. But “I have been warmly welcomed here and I see how well senators interact with each other, old and new.”
Instead, he blames the “pervasive, pernicious influence of money,” unleashed by the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that paved the way for outside groups to collect unlimited contributions. Senators who might otherwise be inclined to seek compromise are forced to extreme positions out of fear that a political group will spend money to try to defeat them, he said.
“It feeds a culture of extremism on the political landscape, left and right,” he said.
Cowan said he was especially disappointed at the failure, in April, of a high-profile gun control measure that included expanded background checks, one of the few major votes he cast since joining the Senate. He cited polls showing overwhelming support for the legislation, and lamented how support in the chamber was eroded by foes’ scare tactics.
Cowan, however, has not exactly built a bipartisan bridge during his brief tenure. A Washington Post online database shows he voted with his party 98 percent of the time in the 109 votes he has taken since entering Congress.
Cowan, who has not written any stand-alone bills, has not used his power to take any outspoken positions. He is rarely sought by the media. And when he is, he avoids controversy.
Tuesdays at the Capitol are normally a feeding frenzy for reporters, when senators from both parties hold court outside their weekly policy lunches. Last week, Senator Lindsey Graham, the voluble South Carolina Republican, was surrounded by two dozen reporters, as he offered opinions on, among other things, terrorist threats, sexual assaults in the military, immigration, and the national debt.
Cowan was nearly anonymous in a corridor nearby, offering little information when a wire service reporter asked him to explain whether the farm bill is in trouble. (Cowan, inexplicably, was placed on the agricultural committee alongside senators from the heartland, a rare spot for someone from Massachusetts.)
“I haven’t heard of any particular challenges,” he told the reporter. “But making the sausage, as they say, is not always easy or pretty business. But that’s what people send us down here to work hard on.”
On the same afternoon, Cowan sat through half of a two-hour hearing on the wireless spectrum, part of his duty as a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. Cowan had to leave before his turn to ask a question.
Unlike his colleagues, Cowan has no need to hold fund-raisers or solicit campaign donations by phone to support his reelection. Much of his work is ceremonial. He began Tuesday by leading the official Senate prayer, another rare feat. The Senate chaplain was delayed in traffic, and majority leader Harry Reid asked Cowan to do the honor.
Reid complimented Cowan from the floor of the Senate, calling him “one of the nicest and [most] competent people I worked with here in Congress.”
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, agreed.
“Anyone who’s appointed for a short period of time is in a difficult spot, but I think he’s making the most of the position and attempting to have an impact,” she said.
So what’s Cowan’s impact?
“He has been a constructive force toward civility and that counts for something,” she said.
Although Cowan does not have to run for reelection, he regularly meets with constituents in Washington and Massachusetts, touring businesses and delivering commencement speeches as if he’s a career politician. Cowan told a group of graduate students from Suffolk University on Wednesday that, although this job has been a dream, he is more comfortably suited to the behind-the-scenes role he had as Patrick’s chief of staff and general counsel.
He told the students he has one priority left: trying to get help for Massachusetts’ struggling fishing industry.
But even that may not be easy: “Some days,” the senator said, “it’s like pushing that rock up the hill.”