Jonathan Cowan (also known as Jon Cowan) was born in Cleveland, Ohio on May 9, 1965. Cowan was raised in Los Angeles for the majority of his childhood. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1987 with a degree in English. Cowan was a Visiting Fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics in 2000, where he taught a course on youth and political advocacy.
From 1989 to 1992, Cowan was Press Secretary and Legislative Assistant to Congressman Mel Levine (D-CA).
Although Cowan had originally planned to go to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 1992, he decided instead to focus on political advocacy because he believed no one was acting as an "activist social-change agent in [his] generation." With the bipartisan help of former U.S. senators Paul Tsongas (D-MA) and Warren Rudman (R-NH), Cowan co-founded, with Rob Nelson, the organization Lead...or Leave in 1992. The organization, with no paying members, was primarily funded by American businessman Pete Peterson. In 1994, Cowan and Nelson co-authored the book Revolution X: A Survival Guide for Our Generation. As part of their effort to bring national awareness to the looming costs of retiring baby boomers, Cowan and Nelson got 101 lawmakers to sign a pledge stating they would do their best to cut the deficit. Cowan was also widely featured as a generational spokesperson on news shows and papers such as Nightline, The Today Show, CNN, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report. Lead...or Leave closed in May 1995. During its three-year life, it raised $13 million, registered 175,000 college students to vote, and drew 500 young leaders to youth summits. Upon the group's closure, Heather Lamm of The Concord Coalition said Lead...or Leave "did a tremendous service to this entire debate."
During the second Clinton administration, Cowan served as Chief of Staff of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, helping to manage a federal agency of 9,000 employees with a $27 billion annual budget. At the time, he was one of the youngest agency chiefs in the Clinton administration. During that presidency, Cowan also served as Senior Advisor to Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo and as Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs under Secretary Henry Cisneros. With Cowan's assistance, Secretary Cuomo unveiled his landmark HUD 2020 Management Reform Plan, which management consultants Booz-Allen & Hamilton considered "significant progress towards achieving the many management reforms that are critical to making the Department function effectively." During this time, HUD also implemented public housing reform that reduced segregation, expanded rental assistance, and established new spending priorities for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in order to increase affordable housing for low-income families.
In 2000, Cowan became President of the new organization Americans for Gun Safety, a non-profit organization that advocated for a way to "unite gun owners and gun-control advocates around an agenda calling for both new laws and stricter enforcement of existing regulations." Under Cowan's oversight, Americans for Gun Safety helped pass federal legislation to improve the quality of the data provided to the National Instant Check System, a database listing those who are prohibited from purchasing guns. The group also aided the passage of state-level ballot initiatives to close gun-show loopholes in Colorado and Oregon in 2000 through messaging efforts and public promotion, including a series of advertisements featuring Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The organization was initially funded by Andrew McKelvey, operated chapters in 28 states, and was credited with "fundamentally changing the debate in an important way." As the President of Americans for Gun Safety, The American Prospect magazine called Cowan a "smart, ferociously ambitious former aid to Andrew Cuomo." Americans for Gun Safety's work has since served as a launch pad for subsequent gun safety movements.
In 2005, Americans for Gun Safety was folded into the new, multi-issue think tank Third Way, which Cowan co-founded along with Matt Bennett, Jim Kessler, and Nancy Hale. Third Way is a political non-profit organization that works to "create and promote transformational centrist ideas." The group primarily aims to influence major policy and political debates by running advocacy campaigns combining researched policy and political analysis. Some of the group's major work includes spearheading the bipartisan "Commitment Campaign," which helped re-frame congressional messaging on marriage equality. According to their webpage, Third Way has also opened up a new debate about the economy in Democratic politics, shaped the Affordable Care Act, and created a new policy discussion around advanced nuclear technology. Third Way was awarded Prospect's 2013 North American Think Tank of the Year award and is ranked as one of the most influential think tanks in the U.S.
Cowan has authored Op-Eds for and has been featured in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, TIME, Newsweek, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Nightline and 60 Minutes.