news analysis

Patrick confident in choosing confidant Cowan

Governor Deval Patrick (left) tapped William "Mo" Cowan as the interim US Senator to replace John Kerry.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Governor Deval Patrick (left) tapped William "Mo" Cowan as the interim US Senator to replace John Kerry.

William “Mo” Cowan, chosen Wednesday as the state’s interim senator, is the latest in a growing list of insider appointments made by Governor Deval Patrick, who has become increasingly dependent on internal candidates and people he has worked with for key jobs.

The rejection of other possible choices, including many with more Washington experience, reflects Patrick’s confidence ­— critics call it indifference — at a time when he is freed from electoral concerns. He has already declared he will return to the private sector after his second term ends in January 2015.

The decision on a temporary replacement for John F. Kerry, confirmed Tuesday as secretary of state, will be one of the most important appointments in Patrick’s second term. Although Cowan will be in the Senate only about five months, his responsibilities will be immense and immediate, navigating a clubby political culture as the nation ponders major budgetary decisions, including potentially large military cuts and entitlement changes.


The Senate will also be responsible for confirming a slew of high-level presidential appointments, tackling immigration overhauls, debating gun control, and monitoring an evolving foreign policy as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, among other challenges.

Get This Week in Politics in your inbox:
A weekly recap of the top political stories from The Globe, sent right to your email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“He’s a neutral Democratic choice — nice guy, solid, won’t embarrass the governor or the state and will not reach too far,” said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant whose clients have included former representative Barney Frank, who also sought the post.

Cowan, 43, was first hired by Patrick as his legal counsel in 2009 and was promoted to chief of staff in 2010, just after the governor began his second term. Cowan was one of many young lawyers Patrick had mentored. Cowan, at the time, was a prominent up-and-coming attorney at Mintz Levin, the politically powerful law firm.

Cowan’s own position as chief of staff was filled by one of Patrick’s first campaign aides, Brendan Ryan, who drove Patrick around the state when he launched his bid for governor in 2005.

This month, Patrick nominated Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, who recently stepped down as secretary of public safety, to become a district court judge.


Patrick also this month elevated Kate Cook, his former secretary of Cabinet affairs, to become his chief legal counsel. And when he was looking for a new Suffolk County sheriff, he chose Steven Tompkins, who had been chief of external affairs at the department but had never run a jail.

Patrick, when he appointed Tompkins, dismissed questions about whether he had considered candidates with experience operating jails.

“By the way, it’s a political job, so the folks that are criticizing it as a political hire, tell them: They’re right,” Patrick said then.

Patrick was under great outside pressure to consider other candidates with higher profiles or more experience in Washington, including Frank, whose public interest in the post prompted an online petition.

Patrick could also have gone with others who have experience or connections in Washington, including Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s widow, or Martin Meehan, the former congressman who is now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.


He could have also chosen a veteran Senate staffer, similar to Paul G. Kirk Jr., the former Kennedy aide Patrick selected to replace Kennedy in 2009, when the senator died.

Or he could have also chosen one of the state’s many elected or former elected officials, or one of several former presidential appointees working at Harvard, MIT, and other universities in the state.

Patrick on Wednesday pushed back against questions about Cowan’s lack of experience in Washington.

Cowan possesses a “lot of depth, lot of wisdom, [is] really shrewd, and he’s going to be great,” Patrick said.

Patrick also said he has long believed in searching beyond establishment players, including into minority communities, for untapped talent.

Cowan said at his initial news conference that he would rely on Kerry’s staff and the rest of the state’s Democratic delegation.

Perhaps most importantly to Patrick, Cowan said he and the governor aren’t “going to differ very much at all” on policy.

Cowan said his experience in the State House, where he is widely admired, would also help him in Washington, because he intimately understands the budgetary pressures facing the nation, which trickle down to the states.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.