Governor Deval Patrick, bypassing the glitz and glamour of a popular former congressman or a Kennedy, has turned to his longtime friend and trusted State House aide, William “Mo” Cowan, as the state’s temporary senator to hold John Kerry’s seat.
The 43-year old Cowan, a North Carolina native who rose to the top of Boston legal circles before joining Patrick’s staff, will become the first African-American to represent Massachusetts in the Senate since Edward W. Brooke held the seat as a Republican from 1966 to 1978.
In choosing Cowan, the governor has made a clear statement that he did not want the politically combative but skillful retired legislator, Barney Frank, or the nostalgia and Washington star power that Victoria Kennedy, the widow of Edward M. Kennedy, would bring. Both were candidates for the job.
Instead, Patrick has picked an administration insider who has won high marks as his general counsel and chief of staff, but has no experience in national politics, or in Capitol Hill legislative work. He will arrive in the Senate as his colleagues are wrangling over major fiscal problems and debating the emotionally charged issue of gun control.
The governor, speaking with reporters at a press conference in his office Wednesday, praised Cowan for helping him to steer the state through one of the worst financial crises in decades.
“His service on the front lines in our efforts to manage through the worst economy in 80 years and build a better and stronger Commonwealth for the next generation has given him intimate understanding of the issues we face,” Patrick said.
The governor, whose 2006 election was a historical breakthrough in racial barriers, also acknowledged the importance of naming an African-American to such a prominent position, saying it reflects the diversity of Massachusetts.
“The Commonwealth and the country is changing,” said Patrick, the state’s first black governor. “The breadth of the diversity and background and ethnicity and race is deeper and broader than ever.”
Cowan will be the second African-American currently in the Senate. Another gubernatorial appointee, Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, took office earlier this month.
Cowan acknowledged he was not headed to Washington to make waves and push an ambitious agenda. He also said he had no further political aspirations and clearly indicated he would be a Democratic loyalist, there to support the governor’s agenda and that of the rest of the party.
Asked if there was any difference in his policy positions and those of the governor, Cowan was forthright: “There is not going to be any daylight there at all,’’ he said.
The 43-year-old Cowan also said that his appointment represents the American dream, namely that hard work and demonstrated competence allow one to succeed.
“The reason I am standing here is not because I am a person of color, an African-
American,’’ Cowan said when asked about the racial significance of his appointment. “I believe the governor, as he has indicated, has the confidence I will do the job he is sending me to do.’’
But he also made a poignant reference, in prepared remarks, to his background, growing up poor in rural North Carolina, the son of parents who had lived through the Jim Crow era.
He cited the struggle of his widowed mother, “a child of the segregated South, a single mother to my sisters and me after my father died when I was a teenager.’’ His mother, he said, taught him that “if you work hard and treat people with respect, there is very little you cannot achieve in this great nation.”
Cowan’s appointment drew praise from many corners of the state’s business and political communities, with statements of support pouring in from the liberal establishment.
Still, some Democrats questioned Patrick’s pick. They felt that Frank or others with national legislative experience such as former US representative Martin T. Meehan, now the University of Massachusetts Lowell chancellor, would bring much-needed experience to the five-month appointment.
David Kravitz — cofounder BlueMass Group, a left-leaning political blog that has been friendly to Patrick in the past — said Cowan will not have time to make an impact during his brief tenure, particularly in an institution where seniority is critical. Kravitz said he much preferred to have Frank for the job because of his 32-year history of operating on Capitol Hill at the highest levels.
“Barney already knows the issues, he knows the players, and he has already cut deals with some of those players,’’ Kravitz said.
But others disagreed.
Paul Kirk, who was appointed interim senator after Edward M. Kennedy’s death in 2009, acknowledged that Cowan faces huge hurdles, but expressed confidence he could handle the job.
“It is easy to say it is a seat-warming job,’’ Kirk said. “In some ways it is, but that description belies what is involved. There are some weighty questions you face, a lot of stuff in committee work and in constituent services — that’s the challenge,’’ said Kirk.
Maurice Cunningham, political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said criticism that Patrick has picked a person unfamiliar with Washington is misplaced.
“The impact that someone could have for just five months in the Senate is not great, and the argument overstates the importance of having a Frank, Meehan, or a Kennedy.”
Cowan will officially take the title of senator Friday at 4 p.m. when Kerry’s resignation becomes official.
But he will have to wait until next week, probably Thursday, to be sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden, who, Patrick aides said, is travelling in the first part of the week. Cowan needs to be sworn in to participate in the Senate proceedings.
Kerry resigned from the Senate seat he held for 28 years and was confirmed Tuesday as secretary of state by his Senate colleagues in a 94-to-3 vote.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin has set the special election to take place June 25, A primary election for the seat is set for April 30.
US Representative Edward J. Markey announced his entry into the race several weeks ago, while his colleague, Representative Stephen F. Lynch, the former president of Iron Workers Local 7 in South Boston, will formally announce his candidacy Thursday.
On Wednesday night, his campaign launched a Lynch for Senate Facebook page and was working to turn out supporters for that announcement. Prior to his South Boston kickoff, Lynch will also make stops in Springfield and Worcester.
Former senator Scott Brown, who lost to Senator Elizabeth Warren last fall, is still considering whether to enter the race on the Republican side.
He will have to make a decision within the next week in order to complete the difficult task of collecting the 10,000 certified signatures needed for his name to appear on the ballot.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.