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Amid 'colorblind' Obama appointments, a Black man named Mass. senator

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Feb 11, 2013 - 6:05:41 PM

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WASHINGTON ( - Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has chosen William “Mo” Cowan—his friend, former chief of staff, a former successful corporate lawyer, and the ultimate political insider—to serve as the interim U.S. Senator from the Bay State, replacing Democrat John Kerry, who was sworn in Feb. 1 as secretary of state after 28 years in the Senate seat.

Sen. Cowan joins Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), another temporary appointee, so that the first time in U.S. history, two Black Senators will serve concurrently in the Senate.

“Mo Cowan is going to be the eighth African American senator,” Dr. Greg Carr, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Howard University told The Final Call. “I think maybe, the most significant thing about this appointment is its insignificance, in terms of how fairly mundane it is as it relates to race.

“The simple thing about it is, a lot of people lobbied for (retiring Rep.) Barney Frank. A lot of people lobbied for other folks, and he’s only going to be there five months. And in fact I think we can measure the kind of regular way we look at some of these things now as it relates to race by the fact that it’s not headline news,” Dr. Carr continued. “It’s been buried in the news pages for the most part. It’s not leading the news shows, so I think that might be the most significant thing about it, in terms of race.”

Gov. Patrick, who is also Black, praised his choice. “He has been a valued ally to me and our work on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth,” Gov. Patrick said at a news conference Jan. 29. “In every step, he has brought preparation, perspective, wisdom, sound judgment, and clarity of purpose.”

Mr. Cowan said he was “honored and humbled” to get the temporary post, which will make him the first Black person to represent Massachusetts in the Senate since Edward Brooke held the seat as a Republican from 1966 to 1978.

He said he would “go to work every day with the needs and aspirations” of Massachusetts residents on his mind and would push for jobs, education, and affordable, high-quality health care, according to published reports. Mr. Cowan said he has no ambition to run for the office in a special election in May and that he was not “a candidate today or any time in the future.”

Mr. Cowan, who is only 43-years-old, has an impressive political and legal pedigree. He was first hired by Gov. Patrick as his legal counsel in 2009 and was then promoted to chief of staff in 2010.

Mr. Cowan is a North Carolina native and Duke University graduate who came to Boston to attend Northeastern University Law School in the early 1990s. He never left the region, rising to become one of the city’s leading Black lawyers. During a 12-year career arguing cases, he rose to partner in the well connected law firm of Mintz Levin which is influential on Boston’s Beacon Hill.

“He’s sort of a staff guy who doesn’t really have a tremendous public profile outside of legal circles,” Kenneth Cooper, an independent journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting for The Boston Globe told The Final Call. “I understand he’s done a lot of mentoring to young Black lawyers after having done pretty well himself in law in Boston, becoming a partner of a brand name firm. There are not many Black partners in top law firms in this city. So, for him to reach out and try to pull others up, speaks well of him I think.” Mr. Cowan also served as a talent scout who was frequently called upon to help diversify the city’s institutions. He helped Gov. Mitt Romney when he faced criticism for the lack of diversity in his judicial picks, identifying non-White lawyers who would make good judges.

Unlike Sen. Scott who did not join the Congressional Black Caucus during his term in the House and who has promised to steer clear of the CBC as a senator, Mr. Cowan will likely be something of a standard bearer.

“If we’re just talking strictly racially, I think that (Gov.) Patrick’s choice was very good,” said Dr. Carr, “because Tim Scott should definitely not be the face of Black people in the United States Senate without some counter-balance, even if it’s only for five months. I do like the idea that at least there are going to be two folks in the United States Senate and Tim Scott is not going to be alone.”

Mr. Cowan is a native of Yadkinville, N.C., a town of 2,200 about 25 miles west of Winston-Salem, where he grew up on a street full of family members. Mr. Cowan’s father died when he was 16-years-old, leaving his mother to rear him and his two sisters on little more than a minimum wage. He was the first from his high school, Forbush High School, to attend Duke, one of the nation’s premier universities.

This move by Gov. Patrick, who hails from a state with a Black population in the single digits, almost flies in the face of President Barack Obama’s record of Black appointments. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus—including Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.)—have publicly complained about the lack of diversity in the president’s second term cabinet.

Rep. Hastings told a meeting of the National Newspaper Publishers Association—the Black Press of America—that Mr. Obama had showed disrespect to the CBC, to the Black Press, and to the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. The CBC, Mr. Hastings said, sent Mr. Obama a carefully vetted list of 61 potential candidates for top level appointments.

“Time went by. Not one of that 61 was selected—not one,” he complained.

Mr. Hastings also said the president’s re-election campaign spent only about $1 million in advertising with Black newspapers, and that it had been pressured to increase its initial budget of $650,000. In his first campaign, Mr. Obama spent about $3 million in Black newspapers.

“If I was president of the United States, there is no way in hell that I would raise a billion dollars and don’t spend but a million dollars with people who probably had as much to do with my becoming president as anybody,” Mr. Hastings said. He continued pointing out that the president hasn’t invested enough in funding Black colleges and universities and has also not appointed any HBCU graduates to serve in his administration.

“We’ve all been very clear that Barack Obama has embraced a kind of ‘color blind’ approach to governing,” said Dr. Carr, “you’d probably expect (those) remarks from Alcee Hastings, which is a good thing. Deval Patrick obviously isn’t talking about a national profile. This probably serves him well. Certainly Obama is no model for kind of progressive thinking as it relates very specifically to empowering folks of color, particularly African people to serve in his administration. But then again. Alternatively, I don’t know that he has been completely without some effort to do that, but I don’t think, generally speaking he’s shown any interest in any kind of an overt demonstration of racial empowerment through political appointments.”

Is President Obama “colorblind,” or blind to people of color? “I wouldn’t quite call him colorblind,” said Mr. Cooper. “He put Lisa Jackson in as head of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) which is a non-traditional post for an African American. He wanted to make Susan Rice his secretary of state. Certainly he has not been as prolific as making top Black appointments as Gov. Patrick, but they serve different publics.

“Politics up here are pretty Left. Nobody is going to criticize the governor because he appointed a Black man. The politics up here are different than in Washington and in the nation as a whole,” said Mr. Cooper.