Cowan Faces Steep Learning Curve On Capitol Hill

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William "Mo" Cowan, left, with Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick during a news conference where he was named interim U.S. Senator for the seat vacated with the resignation of Sen. John Kerry. (Charles Krupa/AP)
William "Mo" Cowan, left, with Gov. Patrick during a news conference where he was named interim U.S. Senator for the seat vacated with the resignation of Sen. John Kerry. (Charles Krupa/AP)

When Sen. John Kerry leaves office Friday, he will be succeeded for a few months by the interim senator selected by Gov. Deval Patrick. William "Mo" Cowan, Patrick's former chief of staff, will serve until a special election is held on June 25 to fill Kerry's seat.

A Learning Curve

Cowan is Massachusetts' second African-American senator. You could see Patrick's eyes well with tears as Cowan spoke of his own mother at a press conference Wednesday.

"She's a child of the segregated South, a single mother to my sisters and me after my father died when I was a teenager," Cowan said. "A woman who did not have the opportunity to attend college, but my mother told me days like today were possible."

In choosing Cowan, Patrick is picking someone without any experience on Capitol Hill. Paul Kirk, who served as interim senator when Ted Kennedy died, had vast experience in Washington as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and working for Kennedy on the Hill, and he found a steep learning curve.

"It's like you get on a bullet train that's sort of halfway down the track and all the other senators are there, 99 all briefed, doing all their thing kind of at a graceful pace," Kirk explained. "And you've got to represent Massachusetts as well as they represent their states, but the only difference is you're getting off at the next stop."

Cowan certainly does not know his way around Capitol Hill in the way that Kirk did, or, say, former Congressman Barney Frank does. But Cowan said he would count on Kerry's staff to help him navigate the Senate.

What's At Stake

Cowan pointed out that on March 1, automatic budget cuts are due to go into effect. It's called a sequester. There's a lot of money for Massachusetts at stake, and a lot of negotiating will have to go on to preserve the state's interests.

By picking Cowan, Patrick made sure there would be no daylight between himself and the interim senator on budget issues that will affect the state, and Patrick is picking someone who is intimately familiar with his budgetary priorities.

"The best strategy here, in the best case scenario, is a balanced approach to this, some spending cuts, some revenue," Cowan said. "I don't think anyone believes it's in the best interest to just do straight, across-the-board cuts. We're going to have to look at it closely.

"The good news is, I'm going to Washington, D.C. We've been looking at this issue greatly, closely here in Massachusetts, because we know if the sequester happens, it's going to have significant impact on Massachusetts."

Cowan says he has no political ambitions. The governor wanted to pick someone who would not run in the special election to succeed Kerry. And Cowan says beyond that, he has no interest in elected office. He pointed to his young sons as the reasons for wanting to go back into the private sector.

Prior to working for the governor as legal counsel and as chief of staff, Cowan worked as an attorney in private practice and that's where he seems to want to return.

This program aired on January 31, 2013.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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