WASHINGTON — Massachusetts has a new U.S. senator.
William “Mo” Cowan will serve as the state’s junior senator through June 25, when voters go to the polls for a special election to complete John Kerry’s six-year term. Kerry resigned to become secretary of state, but was present Thursday when Vice President Joe Biden led Cowan through the oath of office. (You can watch the official swearing in here.)
During the re-enacted swearing in, outside the Senate chamber, Cowan lifted his hand off of his grandmother’s Bible, a broad grin breaking across his face. His mother, in a wheelchair, watched with shining eyes, as did his wife Stacy and two young sons.
“Fantastic!” yelled 8-year-old Miles, throwing his arms wide open to celebrate both a big day for his family and a day off school. Four-year-old Grant kept pulling on Daddy, not sure why he couldn’t be held for this momentous event. The new job is an adjustment for everyone.
Sen. Cowan stopped frequently to greet some of the most powerful people in the country as he moved through the marble halls of the Capitol.
“It’s like being at a new school and joining mid-semester,” Cowan said, laughing, “but I’m certainly honored to be here, it’s a thrill. It is definitely a thrill to be part of the U.S. Senate.”
Cowan says he doesn’t presume to think that he can make headway on any specific issue in the five months he’ll serve before a new senator is chosen in the June 25 special election.
“Gov. [Deval] Patrick had the confidence to send me down here to focus on what matters most to Massachusetts,” Cowan said, turning serious. That’s “jobs, the economy, it’s affordable health care. It’s making sure that we continue to fund education. Obviously in the next few weeks there will be some important issues that don’t just impact Massachusetts.”
For example, mandatory budget cuts to Medicare and the defense industry will take effect unless Congress can work out an alternative deal. Cowan will also likely vote on a number of Cabinet and judicial nominations. And Thursday he signed a letter requesting aid for the fishing industry and co-sponsored re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Cowan’s presence in the Senate holds symbolic meaning, as well. He’s the eighth African-American senator and his appointment marks the first time that two African-Americans have served at the same time.
Patrick says he watched Cowan’s swearing in with pride and spoke with Sen. Tim Scott, an African-American Republican appointed to represent South Carolina.
Paraphrasing Scott, he said “maybe the two of them together can show what it’s like to build a bridge and that’s a very promising thing, even for a very short period of time like this.”
When it comes to minority representation, the Senate still has a long way to go, according to some Senate analysts. Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report, pointed out that five of the eight African-Americans senators were appointed, not elected.
“And it doesn’t just apply to African-Americans,” Cook said. “I think it’s true of Hispanics, it’s true of Asians. There are about 20 women, which is one-fifth of the Senate, but remember, too, that women make up 53 percent of the electorate. So even though there are more women in the Senate than ever, it is still not representative of the population.”
But Cowan’s supporters say that caution doesn’t detract from the milestone his position as a U.S. senator represents: that an African-American who watched Ku Klux Klan protests as a child can now help shape the laws of the land. Cowan thanked his mother for making sure he knew he could rise above bigotry.
“Days like today are what my mother spoke of when I was a kid,” he said. “If you just worked hard and did the right things and you treated people well, anything could happen. That’s what makes this country great. To the extent that my position here today represents that truth, I’m proud to be part of that tradition.”
Cowan has not announced how many of Kerry’s staff will stay through his short term in office, although he says Kerry has offered support and guidance.
This post was updated with the All Things Considered feature version.