Earlier this year, Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) and William "Mo" Cowan (D-Massachusetts) made history by becoming the first two African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate together. Unfortunately, Cowan was just filling in until a special election for the seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry and his time will be up when the Senate returns from its Fourth of July recess.
Cowan wasn't there long enough to make a significant mark but having seen up close and personal how Congress works, he is leaving with some important takeaways.
One is that lawmakers and constituents need a lot more face time, particularly in communities of color where the needs are greatest. A senator or representative doesn't have to be Black or brown to get it, Cowan says, but that will never happen unless they're going out and meeting people where they and their struggles are.
"And Black communities need to ensure we're as involved as we can be in the political process at all levels, because the squeaky wheel gets the oil," he said in an interview with BET.com. "We have to make sure our voices are heard, our issues are considered and that elected officials are being responsive to our needs."
African-Americans, Cowan said, are most desperately in need of a strong public education system that can provide "transformative pathways" for kids and students of all ages. The lack of funding, for example, particularly in communities of color, is "shameful," he said.
It also is a major factor in the double-digit Black unemployment figures, which Cowan considers intolerably high.
"A lot of this stuff is tied together. Our public school systems, which is where you still find most of the Black and brown kids, are trailing, providing our kids with a disadvantage," Cowan said. "And as our economy becomes driven more and more by high tech industries, we're not seeing enough African-Americans getting the skill sets and opportunities to pursue them."
The temporary senator was surprised and disheartened by the level of gridlock on Capitol Hill, which he attributes to the negative influence of money in the political process.
"It is being used as a weapon and one that's preventing Congress from operating in the manner in which I believe our founding fathers intended it to and is creating more divisions than opportunities for members to come together and compromise for the good of the country," Cowan said.
He's also concerned there's a risk that the level of obstruction thrown at President Obama will devolve into becoming more personal than political.
"It's a problem we need to be candid about and address. He's going to be here for a few more years and has a few more great ideas to move this country forward," Cowan said. "But if we have one party whose mission is to not work with this president, it means their mission is to work against the interest of the U.S. and I don't think that's what the Republican Party at its core was created to do."
Being part of history was great while it lasted, but isn't something Cowan intends to repeat, at least in terms of serving in office. The eighth African-American to serve in the U.S. Senate also hopes that one day soon the nation will be able to count 18 or 28 or more.
"I've come to love the job and being in a position where I feel I can help a whole lot of people with the work that we do here, so there is something intoxicating about that," he said. "As I return to the private sector I will look for opportunities to continue to have a voice or a hand in establishing public policy for the good of the country."
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(Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)