A towering South Jersey figure, sports star, long distance swimming champ, role model for young people as a coach and teacher and for years the only former mayor of Atlantic City not to leave office either in handcuffs or under a cloud of scandal, state Senator Jim Whelan (D-2) has died.
A politician who would stop at parks to play basketball with former students while he campaigned, the Democratic senator had struggled with health issues for several years and signaled several times that he wished to retire. This year he made that decision at last and announced he would not seek reelection.
A fierce competitor, the chairman of the State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee once joked to InsiderNJ that his only understanding of art derived from what he saw in sports banners hanging from the rafters of gymnasiums.
After serving as mayor from 1990 for three terms and championing redevelopment in his home city, Philadelphia native Senator Whelan secured an assembly seat in 2005. In 2007, he ran for the LD2 senate seat vacated by William Gormley. After winning that tough race against Egg Harbor Twp. Mayor Sonny McCullough, Senator Whelan would go on to win reelection always in equally closely watched contests. He loved the competition, and played on it during bruising battleground fights with the likes of former Assemblyman Vince Polistina. At the end of that race at his party in Atlantic City, he deadpanned, “I didn’t see it as competitive. I think the media did.”
As a politician, coach and teacher based in Atlantic City, Senator Whelan never left his beloved shore, where he regularly campaigned – and swam. As a teenager, he became a member of his high school swim team, and joined the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, where he re-established the professional marathon race in Atlantic City. He attended Temple University, where he earned All-American honors, and graduated in 1970 cum laude.
In 1977, Senator Whelan began his storied teaching career in the Atlantic City School System.
The news of his death at 68 hit the New Jersey political establishment hard. Never a backslapper, Senator Whelan had an authentic, man’s man style that appealed in many corners of the tough state.
Senate President Steve Sweeney issued the following statement on the passing of his good friend:
“I am shocked and deeply saddened by the untimely passing of Senator Jim Whelan. Jim was a true friend, a confidant and champion for the people of South Jersey and the entire state. He gave so much of his life to public service, serving as a teacher, a councilman, as mayor, and for more than a decade in the Legislature fighting for policies to help improve the lives of the residents of the state. He was a man of integrity and honor, and he was a friend to all of us.
“Jim was rarely one to raise his voice, but was a dogged advocate for Atlantic City, a city he loved dearly, and was determined to see it thrive. He was the author of many of the initiatives that have helped to revitalize Atlantic City and will be remembered for that work for generations to come. He will be missed dearly by all of us who knew him, but his loss will also be felt by the entire state. I offer my sincere condolences to his wife, Kathy, their son Richard, and his entire family during this incredibly difficult time.”
“It is with utter sadness in my heart that I report that my mentor, my friend and your Senator Jim Whelan passed away earlier tonight. Jim was truly one of a kind,” Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2) wrote on Facebook. “New Jersey has lost a giant today. Thank you Jim, for everything.”
“My prayers go out to Kathy and Jim’s family. I will always appreciate Jim’s guidance when I first became mayor and showing me the ropes my first few months,” said Mayor Don Guardian. “He took me under his wing like a big brother. Jim dedicated his whole life in public service to Atlantic City, whether he was serving as a lifeguard, a coach and teacher, councilman, mayor, and state senator, I will keep him and his family in my prayers, May he rest in peace.”
On several key occasions, the late senator clashed with Governor Chris Christie on Atlantic City, objecting to Christie’s broad characterization of failure in the gambling mecca’s political past. Mr. Whelan was proud of his two terms as mayor.
In his 2007 race for the senate, the senator risked alienating members of his own party when he called on the Democratic mayor of Atlantic City to come out of hiding, be a leader, be accountable, and make a statement about his whereabouts and intentions. In the later years of his life, Senator Whelan struggled with health issues – both cancer and his heart. He wanted to retire prior to his 2013 contest for reelection, but – always willing to be a team player – came back for another term, his last.
Plain spoken, All-American, with a Statehouse reputation for treating his staff well and with kindness, and completely unaffected in his manner, Senator Whelan campaigned on the beaches and boardwalk of his hometown without any fanfare or hype.
“Mayor Whelan!” a fan on the boardwalk gushed once and the lanky politician never changed facial expression. On the beach that same day shaking hands with his former beach mates, an old friend greeted him by exclaiming, “Mayor Whelan! Senator Whelan! Governor Whelan!”
Whelan unflappably trudged up the beach.
“Good friend,” said his senate colleague Senator Joe Vitale (D-19). “Stand up guy. Always did the right thing.”
On Wednesday morning, Whelan’s office released a statement saying the Senator died of a heart attack and felt no pain. A memorial service will be held in the upcoming weeks in Atlantic City with details forthcoming.