Sawyer finishes his 16th year in Congress amid lame duck session

By MALIA RULON, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Ohio Rep. Tom Sawyer is just days -- and a few important votes -- away from becoming an ordinary citizen after more than a quarter century spent in public office.

Congress convened Tuesday for an abbreviated postelection session to consider President Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department and pass the federal budget.

Sawyer, a northeast Ohio Democrat best known for his work on the U.S. Census, will finish his 16th year in Congress amid this lame duck congressional session.

Redistricting combined his Akron-area district with the Youngstown-area district formerly held by expelled Rep. James A. Traficant. Democrat Tim Ryan, who defeated Sawyer in the primary, won the seat Nov. 5.

"What to do now? I wish I knew," Sawyer said. "I may not be done with elective office, but I don't know. It's been 26 years and that's a long time."

Sawyer (pictured, above) is barred from entertaining job offers, which could create a conflict of interest, until after he leaves Congress. In the meantime, the boyish-looking congressman who races cars, plays chess and starts each day with the New York Times crossword puzzle has been biding his time.

"It's not like I need to know where to show up for work on January third," jokes Sawyer, who prefers to go by the name of the famous Mark Twain character.

Sawyer, 57, has been in public office most of his adult life. He graduated from the University of Akron with a master's degree in education, then worked as a public school teacher in Cleveland before being elected to the Ohio House in 1976. Sawyer became mayor of Akron in 1984 and entered Congress in 1986 after Democratic Rep. John F. Seiberling retired.

"When he was in the Ohio House, I remember handing him a personal check for $50 for his mayor's campaign," recalled David Leland, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party who served with Sawyer in the Ohio House.

"He's done a lot of positive things for Ohio in a lot of different levels of government," said Leland, who directs Project Vote, a nonpartisan voter registration group. "He's got to be on anyone's short list for future Democratic statewide leaders in Ohio."

When Democrats controlled the U.S. House, Sawyer chaired the Post Office and Civil Service census subcommittee, earning national recognition for his work on the 1990 census. He pushed for ways to make up for undercounting minorities and introduced new questions about ethnic heritage in the 2000 census.

"It's not the numbers alone that were of interest to me, but it was what you can do with the numbers that makes the difference," he said. "They drive policy decisions out of every committee in the Congress, and out of state legislatures and local governments."

The population losses in the Midwest reported in the 2000 census required the Ohio Legislature to redraw congressional districts, which gave Ryan the upper hand.

Ryan attracted significant union support in his bid to unseat Sawyer by reminding voters in blue-collar Youngstown that Sawyer had supported the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement and normalized trade with China.

Looking back, Sawyer admitted that his "life would have been a great deal easier" if he had opposed those bills. But global trade made the rubber and polymer industries in his district possible, he said.

"There are no rubber plantations in northeast Ohio, so to get the natural resources from the very beginning of the rubber industry, you had to have reach that went across the globe," he said. Akron once was home to tire companies Firestone, Goodyear, General Tire and B.F. Goodrich.

A letter published recently in Sawyer's hometown Akron Beacon Journal, praises him for bucking union pressure and supporting free trade: "Sawyer put the good of the country ahead of politics. That kind of courage in today's political arena is very rare," wrote Max Johnson.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, who worked with Sawyer on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, described Sawyer as meticulous, serious-minded and evenhanded.

"I haven't agreed with Tom on every issue," said Strickland, who opposed NAFTA. "But there were times when I would go to Tom to ask his opinion on a piece of legislation because I always felt secure that the feedback I would get from him would be very balanced and thoughtful."

Sawyer also was known in Congress for starting the bipartisan congressional retreats held every other year in Hershey, Pa., to encourage across-the-aisle relationships.

"He was always willing to go the extra mile to establish bipartisan relations," Strickland said, recalling an afternoon he spent with Sawyer shortly after Sawyer lost the primary election. "We were sitting in the chamber and he was pointing to different members of the Republican party, and he was saying, 'He is a really decent human being,'" Strickland said.

Half-packed boxes now litter Sawyer's corner office and dozens of pocket-sized black notebooks are stacked in his drawers. It's eight terms of work ready to be shipped back home to Akron.

"I have been both an actor and a witness," said Sawyer, known on the House floor for placing a wooden writing desk across the armrests of his chair.

While others addressed the chamber, the bespectacled congressman would scribble observations in his notebooks, which also contain journal entries from trips abroad, copies of newspaper articles and handwritten quotations.

"They are filled with the most remarkable things," said Sawyer, who wonders whether the material could one day produce a compelling book. "I haven't witnessed everything, nobody in Congress can do that. But I've kept track."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)