President, Global Government Affairs, Policy and Developed Markets, GE
Hometown: Yadkinville, N.C.
Current residence: Westwood, MA
- JD, Northeastern University School of Law, 1994
- BA, Sociology, Duke University, 1991
Selected work history
- COO and CEO, ML Strategies, 2013-2017
- United States Senator, 2013
- Chief of Staff to Gov. Deval Patrick, 2011-2012
- Legal Counsel to Gov. Deval Patrick, 2009-2011
Mo Cowan is best known for his five-month stint as a United States senator in 2013, when Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick appointed him to fill the seat of Sen. John Kerry, who’d just been confirmed as secretary of State. At the time, that made him only the eighth Black senator in American history. But that hardly represents the totality of public-service experience for the North Carolina native, who came to Massachusetts to attend Northeastern University Law School. Here, he talks with Vignette about his time working for Patrick, his life in Boston, and the current moment of racial reckoning. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you consider a landmark career moment? What lessons have you learned over the course of your career?
The totality of my experiences working in state government under Deval Patrick when he was governor of Massachusetts; working as chief legal counsel, then chief of staff, then senior adviser; working closely with policy leaders but also serving as a liaison with the other branches of government; working in the trenches to try to bring policy ideas into policy reality; at the same time, working closely with constituents and constituent interests as we were debating, shaping, and proposing policy—candidly, that was the formative experience for me for developing a deeper and proper appreciation for this form of advocacy, government affairs.
I practiced as a lawyer for the first 13 years of my career, and as many lawyers are wont to do, I didn’t have the most favorable impression of what lobbyists do. I learned that the best of us have the ability to not only obviously advance our clients’ interests and concerns but also, if we’re smart and honest and candid, can have a role in helping policymakers understand the issues from perspectives they may not have the ability to see them from, from their own perch.
Is there a policy issue you worked on in the Patrick administration that you are particularly proud of?
It was in the area of health care—phase 2 of health care reform in Massachusetts, aka “Romneycare.” It was also the phase we focused on cost containment. I was chief of staff to the governor, so part of my job was to work with the secretary of Health and Human Services and the agencies and other aspects of the administration to try to coordinate some of the industry players to get around the table, literally, and talk through how we collectively could address rising costs of health care in a time when we were expanding coverage in health care. Working through that policy period was fascinating and was its own form of education—trying to get those who may appear to have disparate interest to find common ground and pursue a greater purpose.
Who would you consider to be an important career mentor or role model?
Deval is my mentor, my guru, my North Star. I joke I want to be him when I grow up. I met him while I was a junior lawyer. He was speaking at an event in Boston and I remember listening in the audience, watching him speak and command this conversation, this presentation, and I thought to myself, “I think that’s what I’m supposed to aspire to be.” I literally cold-called him after that. We didn’t have any relationship. I found his number, called his office, and introduced myself, and said I’d love it if he could give me some wisdom and perspective, and the only thing I could offer him in exchange is a cup of coffee. He said, “Sure, we could go right now.”
Because of my own experience and how much it means to me, I try to pay it forward. I never say no to somebody who says, “Can I meet with you or talk to you?”
Turning to your Senate career, when you know that you only have five to six months in Congress, how do you go about prioritizing which issues to work on?
For me, I knew I was a short-timer. I wasn’t going to run for the seat. I was stepping into the seat held by John Kerry, and he had built up and partnered with an incredibly sophisticated and experienced staff of people with command of the issues prominent to the people of Massachusetts and the nation. My mindset was, I don’t need to go in and be all brand-new; I viewed my role as one of stewardship. I was confident in that team, and I gave them the latitude to do that work. After the initial press conference after Deval appointed me, the first thing I did was to convene a call of John’s staff and essentially beg them all to stay, because I fundamentally believed the people of Massachusetts deserved to have those people stick around.
Can you speak about your involvement in the Boston community?
I’ve lived in the Boston area for about 30 years now and I’ve had a lot of success here. The city and the region has given me a lot. For those of us in the corporate realm, we should feel a duty to engage with our community, in whatever way is meaningful to you in aligning with your passions. For me, that’s always been issues around equality, justice, education, and fairness. I’ve always tried to involve myself in organizations where those themes are woven throughout. I’ve been on the board of a charter school, Mass General. I serve on the advisory board of several universities, board of the Greater Boston Chamber, and on MassChallenge, a start-up incubator. Mayor [Marty] Walsh asked me to join the advisory board for the racial-justice fund. I also cofounded a different racial-justice group a few weeks ago.
I’ve had a great professional run, but honestly, when all is said and done, I hope what I’m remembered for is trying to make things better for as many people as possible. I think for me the way to do that right now is through some of these community-based efforts and organizations, to bring my voice to some of these conversations. Right now there are a lot of conversations everywhere about racial justice and social justice, or lack thereof. I think business associations and entities, certainly, for the first time that I recall, in really significant ways and sincere ways, are really digging in on that. Candidly, they’re not quite sure what to do or how to do it. I don’t have all of the answers, but it is important to be part of the conversation to get these answers.
Has the death of George Floyd and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests affected your advocacy approach?
I remind people all the time: I’ve been many things, I’ve had many jobs over the span of my life, but I’ve always been Black. As a Black man and the parent of Black children, these things hit home deeply. At the same time, I’ve probably had more constructive, real conversations about race, racism, and white privilege over the last many months than in a lifetime.
It has impacted me. I called together a team meeting after the George Floyd murder and I told my team what I’m feeling, that I’m not doing OK. Up until now, we’ve pretended these things aren’t as damaging or widespread as they really are. There’s even greater openness now to talking about these things and greater openness in the white community to hearing them. These are awkward conversations, but these awkward conversations are critical, and they need to happen around our dinner tables, soccer fields, social groups, and in the workplace. What I was dealing with, I was bringing into the workplace. It’s not like I can just shed that.
I wrote a piece for Boston Magazine over the summer, and how I started that piece was: You may know things about me—former senator, government-affairs executive, etc.—but who I really am is a Black man in this moment experiencing what is going on in this country and what that means to me, how defeating it feels to have been one of 100 people to serve in the United States Senate, to be an executive at a company like GE, to have been chief of staff to a governor, a partner at a law firm, and still tell my 16-year-old son when I look him in the eye, “There is nothing I can do to protect you when you go out in the world because there are people in the world that will see the color of your skin and only think the worst.” And some of those people have badges and guns.
I was talking to a colleague on the phone about these things and fell silent because a police car drove down my street; I was frozen in place in my own backyard, almost willing myself to be invisible from a police officer who probably had no care in the world about me. Instinctively, it’s that protection mindset that has been born of the way that Black bodies have been policed, violated, and destroyed by systems over the span of our history.
I’m grateful now that many of us are grappling with this, but I fear we will grow weary because the answers are not easy and the conversations are difficult. The reality is we have to talk about 400-plus years of history. It’s in no way to suggest that we haven’t made significant advancements in racial justice and economic justice, but we have not solved all the problems. I recently had someone say to me, “How can we still have racism in this country when we elected Barack Obama twice?” I will give you that we did elect a Black man twice, but I will also remind you that during his administration we saw rates of hate crimes and racist incidents in this country skyrocket. It is ridiculous to assume the mere fact that we’ve elected a Black person absolves us of ever having to think about or even contemplate that racism still exists in this country. I give this anecdote because it is indicative of how far we still have to go.
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