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Tom Sawyer, former Akron mayor, Ohio congressman, dies at 77

Longtime Akron politician Tom Sawyer, seen here visiting Akron's Buchtel high school in November 2015, died this week at the age of 77.
Mark Urycki
Ideastream Public Media
Longtime Akron politician Tom Sawyer, seen here visiting Akron's Buchtel high school in November 2015, died this week at the age of 77.

Longtime Akron politician Tom Sawyer has died at age 77, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, after suffering from a long illness. The notable Democrat's 40-year-long political career included roles at the local, state and federal level, most notably serving as the mayor of Akron and as a U.S. Representative.

Born in Akron in 1945, Sawyer graduated from Buchtel High School and went on to receive his bachelor of arts and master of arts from the University of Akron in 1968 and 1970 respectively. He then worked as an English teacher before running for the Ohio House of Representatives, where he served from 1977 to 1983.

An Akron mayor who broke a streak

He then ran for Akron mayor, breaking an 18-year streak of Republican mayors by beating incumbent Mayor Roy Ray in a close race. The seat has been occupied by Democrats ever since. He served as mayor from 1984 to 1986. During his tenure as mayor, Sawyer managed the aftermath and investigation of an explosion at Akron Recycle Energy System, which killed three people. An investigation determined that S&W Waste, a New Jersey-based waste disposal company, had sent the plant highly flammable chemicals the day of the explosion.

Bob Gippin, an Akron attorney who currently serves on the city’s new Citizens' Police Oversight Board, grew up on the same street as Sawyer in West Akron. Gippin worked on some of Sawyer’s political campaigns and chaired his transition committee when he was elected mayor in 1983.

Gippin remembers him fondly.

“He’s one of these folks that is genuinely a public servant. That was his life, really for all of his life, and I think he did it as well as you could do it,” Gippin said. “He dedicated himself, a lot of sacrifice and I think he got most things right. He’s going to be greatly missed.”

Though Sawyer’s time as mayor was brief, it was impactful, Gippin added, particularly in his work to improve the city’s public service department.

“He began to make the movement of Akron into being a more modern place,” Gippin said. “A lot happened, really, during his time as mayor.”

Gippin and Sawyer remained friends throughout their adult lives. Sawyer had a dry sense of humor, Gippin said, and though he was more on the introverted side, he was an engaged person.

“He wasn’t the most outgoing politician; that wasn’t his style, but I think he liked people, he wanted to know what they thought, and when you were with him, it was really that dry humor and sort of commentary on things and people,” Gippin added.

Heading to DC

Sawyer ran for U.S. Congress, where he served eight terms, from 1987 to 2003. He was chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the 1990 census. His study of the census found that it had undercounted at least two million Black Americans. He attempted to adjust the census figures to account for this but was met with opposition. The Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher ultimately refused to adjust the census totals.

Sawyer notably voted against the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton and against deployment of U.S. armed forces in Iraq.

Stephen Brooks, associate director emeritus of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said Sawyer was a passionate politician who cared deeply about Akron and Summit County. He had a knack for getting people to work together toward a common goal, Brooks said.

“He liked getting things done,” Brooks said. “He would work across the aisle. He was interested in ‘what do I have to do, and who do I have to talk to get whatever is next on the agenda to get done,’ and I think that served the city of Akron well.”

As mayor, he worked to generate economic development at a time when Akron, as well as other midwestern cities across the U.S., were struggling with this, Brooks added.

“He was always trying to find ways to bring back people’s interest and people’s wanting to see Akron succeed, and he was very good at that,” Brooks said.

During his time on the census committee, Sawyer became a census expert, he said. Brooks often invited him to speak to his classes about the census.

“He literally knew more about the census than anyone else in the House of Representatives,” Brooks said. “He was very proud of that, and it demonstrated that a lot of the work the members of the House do are things we don’t even think about, but are very important.”

Redistricting in 2000 led Sawyer to losing his seat in Congress in 2002 when Ohio lost a seat in the House. Sawyer ran in the new 17th district, which resembled former U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant's district. At the time, Traficant was serving time in federal prison on corruption charges. His staffer, Tim Ryan, beat Sawyer in a late upset and ultimately held the seat for 20 years.

Sawyer ran again for the House in 2006, vying for Sherrod Brown's former seat that he vacated to run for Senate. He lost to Betty Sutton in an eight-way primary.

A lasting impact after congress

Following those failed congressional campaigns, Sawyer served in the Ohio Senate from 2007 to 2016.
In the Senate, Sawyer voted to adopt Medicaid expansion in Ohio. He sponsored bipartisan legislation with then Republican State Sen. Frank LaRose to reform redistricting in the state and end gerrymandering. This became State Issue 1 and was passed by Ohio voters with 71% of the vote in 2015.

Term limits barred him from running for the Ohio Senate again, and he did not pursue a political role after that, although he did consider running for Akron mayor again in 2015 after then Mayor Don Plusquellic's abrupt resignation. Ultimately, he dropped out of the race, and current Mayor Dan Horrigan won.

In a statement released by his office, Mayor Dan Horrigan said Sawyer "exemplified the importance of public service and leadership at every level in which he served."

Akron's presumptive next mayor Shammas Malik tweeted "Tom Sawyer was a larger than life figure in Akron, a mayor & congressman, serving for decades. As a kid, I remember when he came to speak to a Muslim community gathering. My heart goes out to his loved ones. I am deeply grateful for his public service," Malik wrote.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine wrote that he was saddened by the news of Sawyer's death.

"Tom and I served in the U.S. House of Representatives together, and he was one of the nicest people I have ever worked with. Tom was a staunch advocate for Akron and Northeast Ohio," DeWine said.

U.S. Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes, who represents Akron and parts of Summit County, also released a statement, calling it an honor to follow in Sawyer’s footsteps as a member of Congress from Akron.

“Tom was a giant in Akron and Summit County, serving our community for more than 50 years as a beloved teacher, mayor, state representative and senator, State School Board member, and U.S. Congressman," Sykes said in the release. "Tom was the last person from Akron to serve in Congress, and it’s an honor to follow his legacy of service to this community.”

Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro's office released a statement. "Our community has lost a strong advocate for public education and government efficiency. Tom always answered the call and will be deeply missed by those who knew him best."

Sawyer is survived by his wife, Joyce, and daughter, Amanda.

Updated: May 24, 2023 at 9:00 AM EDT
This story has been updated.

Also, this story previously stated that Sawyer was elected to the Ohio Senate in 2007. He was first appointed to serve out the remainder of an unexpired term.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.
Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.