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'A giant in Akron and Summit County': Former Akron mayor, longtime US Rep. Tom Sawyer dies at 77

Sawyer served 16 years in Congress following his brief stint leading Akron. Current Mayor Dan Horrigan and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine both offered their condolences.

AKRON, Ohio — One of Summit County's most prominent political figures of the last 50 years has died.

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan on Tuesday confirmed the death of former mayor and longtime U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer at the age of 77. According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Sawyer passed away following "a long illness."

Horrigan released a statement saying, in part:

"Congressman Sawyer selflessly dedicated his life to public service. He worked tirelessly for his constituents, many of whom were his neighbors, friends, and family, in the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate, the United States Congress, and as the Mayor of Akron. He exemplified the importance of public service and leadership at every level in which he served. I, along with my entire administration, City Council, and all of Akron send our sincere condolences to his family."

Born and raised in Akron, Sawyer worked as a teacher prior to his political career, which began with his election to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1976. Seven years later, the Democrat sought to unseat Roy Ray as Mayor of Akron, and did so by scoring a close upset victory that November. No Republican has held the mayor's office since.

During his short tenure as the city's chief executive, Sawyer gained national attention for his handling of the 1984 Akron Recycle Energy System plant explosion that killed three people, blaming the tragedy on flammable materials sent from New Jersey. His popularity in the region led him to seek higher office, and after less that three years in office in 1986, he defeated future judge and state Rep. Lynn Slaby in the race for Ohio's 14th Congressional District.

Sawyer's time in the U.S. House of Representatives would last 16 years, and he again made headlines when chairing a subcommittee investigating the results of the 1990 census. Despite the body's findings that the census had undercounted Black Americans by at least two million, the then George H. W. Bush administration declined to change the numbers, causing Sawyer to rip the process as a "gerrymander on a national scale."

While in Congress, Sawyer notably voted for President Bill Clinton's historic 1993 budget and later against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it was his vote in support of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that he would call "the toughest decision I've ever had to make in public life." It would also likely play a role in his exit from Congress, especially when his home was redrawn into the new 17th District to include much of the Youngstown area following the 2000 census.

Running against anti-NAFTA state Sen. Tim Ryan in the 2002 Democratic primary, Sawyer enjoyed a massive spending advantage, but Ryan had the support of both local labor unions and established Mahoning Valley voters who had previously supported the then jailed Jim Traficant. In the end, Ryan scored a resounding victory and would hold the seat for 20 years before the now 13th District was made Akron-centric once again in 2022.

Despite their differences, Ryan on Tuesday expressed sadness at Sawyer's death, saying the pair had become friends following the bitter campaign.

Akron gained its own district once more in 2022 in the current 13th, with Sawyer's fellow Democrat and city native Emilia Strong Sykes now representing the area. The congresswoman had this to say regarding the loss of Sawyer:

"I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Tom Sawyer, and my sincere and deepest sympathy goes out to his wife Joyce, daughter Amanda, and all who knew and loved him.

"Tom was a giant in Akron and Summit County, serving our community for more than 50 years as a beloved teacher, mayor, state representative, State School Board member, and U.S. Congressman.

"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. A champion for our school systems, Tom made it his mission to ensure all students received a high-quality education. I had the honor of working alongside Tom to represent the Akron area in the Ohio legislature, where I witnessed firsthand his commitment to the people of Northeast Ohio.

"Without a doubt, Tom left a mark on the City of Akron, state of Ohio, and this country, and his legacy of service will never be forgotten."

Credit: AP
Former Northeast Ohio U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer

Sawyer sought to get back to Congress in 2006 via the former 13th District, but lost an eight-way primary battle to Betty Sutton. He would, however, be appointed to the Ohio Senate in 2007 before winning two full terms in his own right, and while back in the General Assembly he successfully passed bills combatting gerrymandering and reforming the state's charter school laws.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine offered his condolences this afternoon:

"Fran and I are saddened to hear of the death of former Congressman Tom Sawyer. 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. Fran and I offer our sincerest condolences to his wife, Joyce, and daughter, Amanda."

"Tom Sawyer was a larger than life figure in Akron, a mayor & congressman, serving for decades," Akron City Councilman Shammas Malik, who won Akron's Democratic mayoral primary earlier this month, added. "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."

Per the Beacon Journal, Sawyer is survived by his wife Joyce and daughter Amanda, and funeral services will take place July 12 at both Billow's funeral home as well as Our Lady of the Cedars Maronite Catholic Church in Fairlawn. The family asks donations be made to the Parkinson's Foundation.

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