TRENTON - John Adler, a New Jersey politician who worked his way up from town councilman to congressman, died Monday. He was 51.
A spokeswoman for the Democrat confirmed his death Monday.
He had been at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia since last month, when he underwent emergency surgery for an infection in the tissue around his heart.
Adler was among the Democratic members of Congress who lost his job their jobs in last November's election., being He was defeated by former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan.
Adler grew up in the Philadelphia bedroom community of Haddonfield, where his father ran a dry cleaning business. When Adler was in junior high school, his father began having heart attacks that left him unable to work. He died before Adler graduated from high school.
Adler went to Harvard College, then Harvard Law School. He was just 28 and back in New Jersey as a young lawyer when he won a seat on the township council in Cherry Hill.
Adler was elected to the state Senate in 1991, the only Democrat that year to unseat a Republican incumbent in New Jersey's legislative races. He was re-elected five terms and continued working as a lawyer.
He moved to Congress in 2008 by winning in a traditionally Republican district after longtime Rep. Jim Saxton retired.The open seat, coupled with a popular presidential candidate in Barack Obama, made a Democratic victory possible that year. Circumstances shifted over the next two years, making his seat difficult to retain. Obama's popularity had waned, and Adler was facing a well-known and well-liked Republican opponent in former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan.
The campaign brought to light a rare scuff on Adler's reputation when a newspaper linked a third-party candidate's campaign to area Democratic Party officials. The third-party candidate, Peter DeStefano, denied he was put up by Adler or Democrats, and Adler denied any involvement.
He was feisty and typically quick-tongued in what would be his last campaign. When Runyan said during a debate that the nation's founders expected people to serve in government then return to civilian life, Adler retorted: "Most of our founding fathers, were, in fact, career politicians."
But he ultimately lost the election.
Adler denied interview requests after his defeat.
He underwent emergency heart surgery last month after contracting staph bacterial endocarditis, an infection in tissue around the heart.
Adler is survived by his wife, Shelley, and his four sons.
A state Senate budget hearing was interrupted Monday afternoon as lawmakers learned of his death.
In a statement, Runyan said he respected Adler's leadership and commitment. "May John rest in peace, and may those he left behind be comforted in the knowledge that his lifetime of public service to our community has left a lasting legacy for which they can be most proud."
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from Newark, recalled how Adler was a prime force behind the state's law that bans smoking in most public buildings.
"His passing is a tragic loss for our state, but his legacy of intelligent and classy leadership will not be forgotten. Every time we breathe clean air at a restaurant, for instance, we can thank John Adler," Oliver said in a statement.
He also sponsored a state law toughening car emission standards and was a leading backer of state laws to take away pensions for government employees with corruption convictions.
"Congressman Adler was a fine public servant and a good person," Gov. Chris Christie said in a statement. "His untimely death is an awful shock."
New Jersey Sierra Club executive director Jeff Tittel called Adler "a true environmental hero" for his work in protecting open space and the clean air with the car emissions law he championed, among other legislation.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican whose district bordered Adler's, served with him in both Trenton and Washington.
"I can attest that he was a good man who was deeply dedicated to South Jersey and those he represented," he said.
Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield.
Published in The Record/Herald News on Apr. 5, 2011.