What’s ‘Life After Congress’ for a Temporary Senator?
BOSTON — Sporting a Red Sox cap and a fleece jacket emblazoned with the logo of his law firm, you wouldn’t know that the man in the corner booth of a diner was a historic figure, one of just nine African-Americans to have ever served in the United States Senate.
But retired Sen. William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts might well prefer it that way when he visits establishments such as Victoria’s Diner in the Dorchester neighborhood here, since he never intended to be a senator in the first place.
The Democrat, who says his childhood dream was to join the Marine Corps, stepped up when asked to serve as an interim senator by his former boss, Gov. Deval Patrick.
That Senate appointment to replace John Kerry, who vacated his seat to become secretary of State, ran for roughly six months in 2013, with no expectation it would go any longer.
Cowan said he advised Patrick against the appointment, given the potential fallout that could come from the governor appointing a former senior adviser, chief of staff and counsel to the post. But with Patrick unrelenting, Cowan agreed to take the assignment.
Cowan is now of counsel at the large Boston-based firm Mintz Levin, where he also works as the senior vice president and chief operating officer of the government relations arm, ML Strategies. He previously practiced there for about a dozen years, before leaving in 2009 to join the Patrick administration.
After meeting for lunch, Cowan was set to attend the evening gala for the opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate just a few miles away on Columbia Point. It would be a foray back into the Senate world for Cowan, a chance to meet and mingle with colleagues from his brief tenure in D.C.
And while Cowan has stayed in social contact with some of his colleagues, including Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, his current life has a good deal of separation from his time in Washington.
The night before, Cowan took his kids to Boston’s TD Garden to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Working through the crowd like any spectator trying to get autographs for the children, a woman actually noticed Cowan and call him a senator.
“Initially, it wouldn’t register that they were talking to me,” Cowan said of people identifying him on the street in and around Boston by title. “The longer I’m away, it happens less.”
On this particular Sunday, it didn’t happen as Cowan paid the check and got up to leave the diner. Just in case anyone doesn’t believe he’s been a member of one of the most elite clubs in the political universe, Cowan carries in his wallet a retired Senate identification card issued by the Senate’s ID office.
One lasting legacy of his roughly half-a-year as a senator? A true presence on social media. Cowan was active on Twitter before being sworn in to the Senate, and after convincing his rather nervous staff, he continued tweeting during and after his term. He currently posts with some regularity from @mocowan, and he’s particularly active during major sporting events and awards shows.
“My wife worries about my social media presence,” Cowan concedes. “I try to be harmless — engage in harmless fun.”
He says he generally steers clear of political controversies or sensitive subjects, but admits he did face some scolding in the past for engaging with trolls. Now, his wife Stacy helps to keep him in line, pointing out when she thinks he should pull back.
Still, Cowan hasn’t found a silver bullet for using the social media platform, despite having seen some innocuous tweets catch fire.
“Sometimes I tweet things that are particularly clever and no one seems to care,” Cowan said. (When he checks the old official account on his phone, he will discover people still tweet to it about issues of the day, under the misguided belief that he’s still a sitting senator.)
He developed some of his social media following in the Senate by being a rare senator with a preference for sporting bowties, including during what seemed at times like interminable shifts as the chamber’s presiding officer.
As for a personal political future, Cowan wants none of it. While he served in the Senate and has worked as a senior aide in the top levels of Massachusetts politics, he has never actually faced the voters of the Commonwealth, and he intends to keep it that way.
Cowan seems more than content to work from the outside, serving on boards in the Boston area, like those at Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital.
He does say that even a brief Senate stint had a way of further encouraging him to be active in the policy-making arena, particularly on health care issues.
“You do feel your pull toward public policy,” Cowan said, quickly adding an assurance for the Boston political establishment that did not, in his case, include any aspirations for elected office: There’s “no need to view me as a threat.”