TRENTON - State Sen. Jim Whelan, a Democrat and former mayor of Atlantic City, died Tuesday, six weeks after undergoing surgery to remove cancerous cells from his kidneys. He was 68.

Whelan's office had announced that he had a successful operation at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on July 11. He posted on Facebook on July 31 that he had been readmitted for complications from blood thinners, then transferred to a rehab center from which he had returned home late last week.

On Wednesday, Whelan's office said the senator died after a heart attack:

"Up until the moment he passed, Jim was doing what he loved, talking about his beloved City of Atlantic City. After ordering subs from his favorite White House Sub Shop, he was at his house ready to talk to a Netflix documentary crew about Atlantic City when he passed. Sen. James Whelan died yesterday after suffering a heart attack at his home. His passing was quick, and he felt no pain."

Though Whelan had been sick, news of his passing stunned people in Trenton.

"During my nearly eight years in Trenton, I came to know Jim as a forthright and honest leader whose word was his bond," said Gov. Chris Christie. "While we did not always agree on policy, he was always willing to listen and reason together. The current comeback of Atlantic City is due in no small part to the efforts and passion of Jim Whelan."

"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," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney. "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."

"Sen. Whelan gave his all to serve both his constituents and his students in Atlantic City, Atlantic County, and the 2nd Legislative District. I’m extremely saddened to learn of his sudden passing," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. "My prayers are with his wife, Kathy, and his family. New Jersey lost a good man today.”

"I will always appreciate Jim's guidance when I first became mayor and showing me the ropes my first few months. He took me under his wing like a big brother," said Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian. "Jim dedicated his whole life to public service to Atlantic City, whether he was serving as a lifeguard, a coach and teacher, councilman, mayor, or state senator."

"New Jersey has lost a class act and a giant," said Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy, who said that "every step of the way ... he put his heart into reviving the city he loved and called home."

Whelan was elected to the City Council in Atlantic City in 1981 and served two terms before being elected as the city's mayor in 1989. He served as mayor for 12 years, then lost a bid for another term in the Democratic primary in 2001.

Four years later, Whelan won election to the state Assembly. After one term, he won election to the Senate in 2007. He won re-election to the Senate in 2011 and 2013 and chose to retire rather than seek another term this year.

Whelan was a swimming star and instructor, earning induction into the Temple University Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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