Putting Political Ideals Into Action

By Lawrence Goodman / September / October 2006
December 6th, 2006

Professor emeritus of political science Tom Anton was not the kind of academic who cloistered himself in an ivory tower. Anton, who died of cancer on June 6 at the age of 71, was a world-renowned political scientist who studied the influence of Washington politics on the federal budget. Underlying his approach was the belief that the many problems he found in the workings of government were eminently fixable. In fact, he tried to fix a few of them himself. “He wanted to jump into the fray and do what he could to make government better,” recalls Professor of Political Science Darrell West. “He wanted to be very involved in the community.”

And he was. He served as chair of the board of commissioners of the Providence Housing Authority and as founding director of the Providence Plan, a nonprofit organization dedicated to community revitalization. In 1992 he received an individual recognition award for his contributions to housing policy. “The Providence Plan is now flourishing,” says West, and “Tom was in on the earliest stages of the planning.”

Anton was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He graduated magna cum laude from Clark University in 1956 and earned his PhD from Princeton in 1961. From 1967 to 1983, he was an associate and then full professor of political science at the University of Michigan. During his time at Michigan, he was acting director of the Institute of Public Policy Studies and director of the Intergovernmental Fiscal Analysis Project.

In 1984 Anton arrived at Brown to become the founding director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy. He led the Taubman Center until 2000 and is widely credited with building it into a premier institution specializing in multidisciplinary research in education, health care, and social policy. He also served as the University’s dean of the faculty from 1990 to 1991.

Anton’s research focused on the ways that pork, political influence, and special-interest groups shape the federal government’s distribution of money to state and local municipalities. “He found a lot of inefficiency in the political process,” says West. “The more ideology affected things, the more it undermined the equity of the process.”

Anton was also an early leader in using large data systems to track the flow of funds among national, state, and local governments. He was one of the earliest scholars to use geographic displays of such data to reveal patterns of federal policy. In recent years, says West, Anton became especially concerned about the growing inequities in the federal government’s allocation of funds to local municipalities. “He was very concerned with the direction the country was going,” says West.

Anton was the author or coauthor of fourteen books and monographs and more than fifty scholarly articles. Among his most important books are The Politics of State Expenditure in Illinois, Governing Greater Stockholm: A Study of Policy Development and System Change, and Federal Aid to Detroit.

His American Federalism and Public Policy: How the System Works won the 1989 Gladys M. Kammerer Award, presented by the American Political Science Association for the best political science publication in the field of U.S. national policy. The book presented a realpolitik approach to American federalism and described how leaders use coalitions to build support in fragmented political systems.

During his career, Anton also received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Bydale Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, and in 2000 he was selected by the American Political Science Association to receive the Distinguished Federalism Scholar award. “Tom was someone who really enjoyed getting into the details of policy making,” says West. “He had an outstanding and intuitive grasp of how government works.”

Anton was also a beloved teacher. According to West, students always found him willing to talk. His office was often filled with the jazz music he enjoyed, especially the works of Dave Brubeck and Dave McKenna. “He just loved their sense of rhythm,” West says.

Professor Anton is survived by his wife, Barbara, of Orleans, Massachusetts; his three children, Lynn Allen and Thomas R. Anton of Michigan and Leslie Anton of Brewster, Massachusetts; four grand­children; and two great-grandchildren. Contributions in his memory can be made to the Thomas J. Anton Fund at the Taubman Center for Public Policy, 67 George Street, Brown University, Providence, R.I. 02912-1977.

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September / October 2006