Former U.S. Rep. John Adler, a tireless politician from Cherry Hill who carved out a centrist voting record over two decades in the state senate and one term in Congress, died Monday at the age of 51.

A natural campaigner well-regarded for his intellect, Adler arrived in Congress in 2008 during the Democratic wave that brought in President Obama. He knocked on thousands of doors and held countless town hall meetings to keep his seat in the right-leaning district, only to lose a tough re-election last November to Republican Jon Runyan.

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In March, Adler had emergency heart surgery after contracting staph bacterial endocarditis, according to a statement from the law firm where he worked, Greenberg Traurig. It is unclear if that's what led to his death.

Adler leaves behind his four sons - Jeffrey, Alex, Andrew, and Oliver - some of whom were regulars on the campaign trail, and his wife, Shelley, an attorney and former Cherry Hill councilwoman whom he met at Harvard Law School.

Small in size - particularly next to Runyan, a former football player - Adler had a powerful, comfortable presence in front of a crowd, and was known for his oratorical skills and positive demeanor.

Far from a liberal Democrat, Adler voted against the Obama health care bill and worked on legislation with the likes of noted libertarian U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas).

Gasps rippled through a hearing of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Monday afternoon when Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) announced Adler's passing.

"I'm a little flustered," Sarlo said. "We just learned one of our former colleagues, John Adler, has just passed away."

Attendees bowed their heads in a moment of silence.

"It's a very sad day in Trenton," said Sarlo.

Sarlo said Adler was a compassionate man who served his constituents well and spoke of his children often.

Adler also often referenced his childhood in Haddonfield, where his father owned a dry cleaning store. When Adler was still in junior high school, his father had a series of heart attacks that left him unable to work. He lost the business, and died when Adler was still a teenager.

Adler and his mother lived on Social Security benefits for widows and minors - a point he emphasized to senior citizens in vowing to protect the program for them. Those payments helped send him to Harvard for college and law school.

In 1987, Adler was elected to the Cherry Hill Township Council, where he wrote Cherry Hill's ethics ordinance. And in 1991, he became the only candidate to beat a Republican incumbent when he won a State Senate seat. He served in that body for 17 years, rising to chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In the state senate, Adler helped pass numerous environmental protections. Among them was a "clean car" bill signed into law in 2004 that imposed tougher pollution limits on all new cars sold in New Jersey, which has some of the worst air quality in the country.

He also was credited for the ban on indoor smoking, the Smoke Free Air Act, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union).

"John was smart, passionate, energetic, and dedicated throughout his long career in public service," Kean said in a statement. "He was a friend to all of us in the Senate and a living reminder that it is possible to disagree with one another without being disagreeable. New Jersey is a better place having been served by John Adler. He will be missed."

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or
Staff writers Maya Rao and Cynthia Burton contributed to this report.