OCEAN CITY — William J. Hughes, a longtime congressman and ambassador who represented South Jersey's 2nd District, has died at 87.

The Democrat's family says he passed away on Wednesday in Ocean City. A cause of death wasn't released.

Hughes was elected to Congress in 1974 and retired in 1995. He was appointed ambassador to Panama by President Bill Clinton and served in that role until 1998.

During his years in Congress he served on the House Judiciary Committee and chaired the Subcommittee on Crime.

The Federal Aviation Administration's research and development center outside Atlantic City was named after Hughes in recognition of his efforts to keep the facility in southern New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday called Hughes a "New Jersey icon."

He was a public school product and a Rutgers graduate two times over. As a prosecutor in Cape May, he fought to keep residents safe. As a respected congressman, he fought to protect the Jersey Shore from polluters and the Pinelands from development. As U.S. ambassador to Panama under President Clinton, he served our nation on the world stage," Murphy said in a written statement.

"Tammy and I are saddened to learn of his passing, and send our condolences to his children and their families, and to all who knew him and called him a friend.

"Congressman Hughes will continue to inspire future leaders through the work of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, perhaps the most fitting tribute to his tremendous legacy."