William “Mo” Cowan was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on February 1, 2013, to succeed Senator John Kerry who had resigned to become Secretary of State in the Barack Obama administration. Cowan was the first African-American Senator to serve from the state of Massachusetts since Edward Brooke left office in 1979. “The reason I am standing here is not because I am a person of color, an African-American,” Cowan said just before taking office. “I believe the governor, as he has indicated, has the confidence I will do the job he is sending me to do.”1 With Tim Scott of South Carolina having been appointed to the Senate a month earlier, Cowan’s appointment marked the first time in U.S. history that two African-American Senators served concurrently. Scott and Cowan were, respectively, the 7th and 8th African-American Senators in the chamber’s history.
William Maurice (Mo) Cowan was born on April 4, 1969, in Yadkinville, North Carolina, to a seamstress, Cynthia Cowan, and her husband, a machinist. Growing up in the post Civil Rights era, Mo Cowan nevertheless experienced overt acts of racial discrimination. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross and distributed literature in his home town, and even marched on his local high school, Forbush High.2 In 1991, Cowan graduated from Duke University in North Carolina with a degree in sociology. He moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to pursue a degree in law. “I felt I needed to get beyond North Carolina and see the rest of the world,” he said.3 Cowan graduated with a J.D. from Northeastern University in 1994. He remained in Boston where he joined several reputable law firms as a litigation associate, and then as partner until 2009. Cowan and his wife Stacy have two sons, Miles and Grant.
Governor Patrick and Cowan first met in the 1990s, but it was not until 2009 that Governor Patrick asked Cowan to join his administration as his chief legal counsel.4 From 2009 to 2011, Cowan advised Patrick on a host of issues including legislation and policy, the appointment of judges, and general legal matters. In 2011 he became Patrick’s chief of staff and in 2013 his senior advisor. When Senator Kerry accepted his cabinet appointment and resigned from the Senate, Governor Patrick chose Cowan to fill the vacancy, making him the interim Massachusetts Senator.
When he entered office during the 113th Congress (2013–2015), Senator Cowan was assigned to three committees: Agriculture, Commerce, and Small Business. He chaired the Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Food and Agricultural Research. He also co-chaired the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force. Just two months into his Senate service, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three spectators and injuring scores of others. Cowan later noted the outpouring of support from his Senate colleagues: “In April I experienced the very best of this body’s character . . . when Members from every corner of this Nation extended their sympathies, their prayers, and pledged their assistance and support for the city of Boston and to all those affected by that tragedy.”5
During his tenure in the 113th Congress, Cowan was involved with several pieces of legislation. He co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (S. 47) which passed the Senate on February 12th and the House on February 28th; the President signed it into law on March 7, 2013. Other than several unsuccessful amendments to the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 (S. 954), he personally introduced and sponsored two noteworthy bills. The first was a bill to amend the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 “to establish a market-driven inventory system” (S. 746). The amendment would allow farm producers, who elect to participate, the option of filing for recourse loans on specific crops such as corn, oats, barley, grain sorghum, wheat, and soybeans produced from 2014 through 2018. The second was a resolution designating November 28, 2013, as “National Holoprosencephaly Awareness Day” (S.Res. 152). Holoprosencephaly, or HPE, is a birth defect that targets the brain and can result in severe skull and facial defects.6 Senator Cowan left office before either bill could be debated on the Senate Floor.
On June 25, 2013, Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey won the special election to fill the remainder of Kerry’s term, and Cowan left office on July 15, 2013. “I entered the Senate at a vexing time in this body’s history,” he said. “As we all know, congressional approval levels are dismally low.” But “what I have encountered in the Senate is not a body defined by vitriol but one more defined by congeniality and common respect.”7 After leaving office, Cowan returned to Boston to be with his family and continue his law career.
1Frank Phillips, “For Senate, Patrick Picks a Confidant: Interim Choice Cowan is New to D.C. Politics,” 31 January 2013, Boston Globe: A1.
2Michael Levenson, “For Top Aide, Echoes of Governor’s Journey,” 13 December 2010, Boston Globe: A1.
3Levenson, “For Top Aide, Echoes of Governor’s Journey.”
4Sean Sullivan, “Who is Mo Cowan?,” 30 January 2013, The Washington Post.
5Congressional Record, Senate, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (26 June 2013): S5231.
6“Learning About Holoprosencephaly (HPE),” National Human Genome Research Institute, http://www.genome.gov/12512735 (accessed April 7, 2014).
7Congressional Record, Senate, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (26 June 2013): S5230–5231.