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Meet Mo Cowan, Massachusetts’s Newest Senator

Sen. William ‘Mo’ Cowan, D-Mass. Photo by Reuters/Brian Snyder.

Never before in the history of our nation have two African-Americans served in the U.S. Senate at the same time. That is, until Democrat William “Mo” Cowan was sworn in as Massachusetts’s new senator on Thursday. Cowan will serve on an interim basis filling the seat vacated by former Sen. John Kerry, who replaces Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Cowan joins the Senate’s other African-American member, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, a Republican who was likewise appointed by his state’s governor. Scott will finish the term of the recently retired Jim DeMint. Cowan and Scott are the seventh and eighth African-American senators, respectively. While they are the first pair to serve together, they are also both appointees. Only three black senators have ever been elected (senators used to be appointed by the states before the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913).

Cowan grew up in Yadkinville, N.C., a rural town about 25 miles west of Winston-Salem. Western North Carolina in the 1970s and ’80s was not a particularly hospitable place for a young black boy. As a child, Cowan watched members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in his hometown. As a teen, Klan members marched at his high school when word spread that a black boy he knew was dating a white girl.

“Days like today are what my mother spoke of when I was a kid, that if you worked hard and did the right things and you treated people well, anything could happen,” Cowan, 43, told the Associated Press after being sworn in.

From Yadkinville, Cowan attended Duke University for his undergraduate degree and moved north to Boston to study law at Northeastern University. When he graduated with his J.D. in 1994 he chose to stay in Boston and has been there ever since.

Cowan excelled in Boston. He was a young, charismatic black lawyer in a town where diversity was becoming an institutional buzzword. When young lawyers moved there and didn’t know anyone else, they would call Cowan, who would take them out to dinner and show them the ropes. When former Gov. Mitt Romney needed help diversifying his cabinet, Cowan was the one he sought out. And when current Gov. Deval Patrick needed a chief counsel in 2009 to work in his office, Cowan, by then a partner at the prestigious Mintz Levin law firm, was at the top of his list. After 14 months, Cowan was named Patrick’s chief of staff.

Cowan returned to the private sector in November 2012. Three months later, back in the State House, Patrick announced Cowan would fill the seat vacated by Kerry when he left for the State Department.

“Mo’s service on the front lines in our efforts to manage through the worst economy in 80 years and build a better, stronger Commonwealth for the next generation has earned him the respect and admiration of people throughout government,” Patrick said at the time. “The people of the Commonwealth have benefited from his wisdom and good judgment during his time in our office, and will again in the Senate.”

Currently Cowan has no plans to make Washington, D.C,. his permanent home. The state does not allow appointed senators to seek the seats they are named to fill. The special election will be held June 25. Democratic Reps. Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch have both announced they will run and the Republicans have yet to name a candidate. Recently ousted GOP Sen. Scott Brown has said he will not run, instead joining the board of a local paper company.

“This is going to be a very short political career,” Cowan said as he was announced as Kerry’s replacement. “No matter where you are or where you are going, just understand, you’re better than no one but you can be everyone’s equal.”

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