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.

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 in last November's election.

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 had graduated 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 Cherry Hill township council.

In 1991, he was elected to the state Senate -- 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. That 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.

He underwent emergency heart surgery last month after contracting staph bacterial endocarditis, an infection in the tissue around the heart.

Adler is survived by his wife, Shelley, and his four sons.

A state Senate budget hearing was interrupted yesterday 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.

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