Sunday, 19 May 2024

Tom Sawyer, Congressman Who Challenged Census Undercount, Dies at 77

Tom Sawyer, an eight-term Democratic congressman from Ohio whose concern that the 1990 census had missed more than two million Black Americans spurred the federal government to improve its subsequent population counts, died on May 20 in a nursing facility in Akron. He was 77.

His wife, Joyce (Handler) Sawyer, said the cause was Parkinson’s disease.

Mr. Sawyer was chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Subcommittee on Census and Population when he cited evidence of the undercount and urged the Census Bureau to adjust the count. Conducted every 10 years, the count determines the apportionment of congressional seats and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal spending among the states.

The bureau’s director at the time, Barbara Everitt Bryant (who died in March), had originally recommended an adjustment despite the statistical challenges that that would have entailed. She was overruled, though, by Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, who said that while it might be possible to make the national count more accurate, adjusting the local figures on which apportionment was based could actually produce additional miscalculations.

Mr. Sawyer denounced Mr. Mosbacher’s decision as a “gerrymander on a national scale.”

Declaring that he had found a “real consensus that early planning for 2000 will improve the process,” Mr. Sawyer successfully prodded Congress to mandate a study by the National Academy of Sciences of how the bureau could make a more accurate count.

In 1990, the undercount, which was believed to have shortchanged the nation’s older cities in the Northeast as well as cities in the industrial Midwest like Akron, was originally estimated to be as much as 2.1 percent and later revised to about 1.6 percent. In 2000, with new procedures by the bureau in place, inspired in part by the National Academy study, the undercount was said to have been only about .49 percent.

Mr. Sawyer served in local, state and national office for nearly five decades. He was a member of the Ohio House of Representatives from 1977 to 1983, the mayor of Akron from 1984 to 1986, a congressman from northeast Ohio from 1987 to 2003 and a member of the Ohio State Senate from 2007 to 2016.

In Congress, he voted against the stringent welfare legislation (officially the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2003, he opposed the deployment of American forces to Iraq.

Speaking from the House floor, he also scorned the impeachment of President Clinton, famously quoting Sir Thomas More, who was executed in 1535 for his religious beliefs, as saying: “What you have hunted me for is not my actions but for the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. God help the statesmen who walk your road.”

Thomas Charles Sawyer was born in Akron on Aug. 15, 1945. His mother, Jean (Galloway) Sawyer, was a hospital dietitian. His father, who was president of a firm that manufactured industrial ventilators, was named Furman, but everyone called him Tom, after the Mark Twain character. The couple decided that since their son would probably wind up with the same nickname, they might as well name him Thomas.

Mr. Sawyer earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1968 and a master’s in urban education in 1970, both from the University of Akron. He started his career as a teacher in Cleveland before being elected in 1977 to the State Legislature, where he was instrumental in reforming the reapportioning of legislative districts to curb the influence of partisan politics.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Amanda Kraus. He lived in Akron.

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. @samrob12

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