Atlantic City lost one of its most powerful and influential voices this week with the unexpected passing of State Senator Jim Whelan (D), who died after suffering a heart attack at his Chelsea Heights home on Tuesday.
Atlantic County Democrats now have 35 days to name Whelan’s replacement, an appointment that will run until January 2018. It’s unclear who the frontrunners for the job might be.
Whelan had planned to retire at the end of his term. Atlantic County Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic County) and Colin Bell (D) are running for the state senate seat.
In today’s combative political climate both nationally and in the New Jersey state capital of Trenton, Whelan was able to dance around the divisive nature and maintain Democratic and Republican friends.
“During my nearly eight years in Trenton, I came to know Jim as a forthright and honest leader whose word was his bond,” Governor Chris Christie (R) said in a statement. “While we did not always agree on policy, he was always willing to listen and reason together.”
Whelan, a former mayor of Atlantic City and state politician for over a decade, was a longtime advocate for the gambling beachfront town he called home. Whelan helped shape New Jersey’s legalized online gambling industry, working with colleague State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) in drafting iGaming regulations that would eventually find support on both sides of the aisle.
Whelan was also one of the leading advocates for the legalization of sports betting. New Jersey voters passed a constitutional referendum to authorize sports gambling in 2011, and Christie signed legislation soon after in January 2012. But the NCAA, along with the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL, successfully sued New Jersey in an effort to block the state from opening betting lines.
The US Supreme Court is expected to review the case sometime this fall, and issue a verdict in 2018.
Brown vs. Bell
Chris Brown and Colin Bell ran unopposed in June’s primary to fight for Whelan’s Senate seat. But it’s not the first time the two have gone against one another in a campaign.
Two years ago, Bell ran unsuccessfully for one of two General Assembly seats in the Second District against Brown and three others. Bell received 17,433 votes, third behind Brown (18,959) and Democratic Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (18,279).
Both Atlantic City natives, they differ on policy issues but share the same stance when it comes to the state takeover. Brown, a Republican, has been critical of the Christie administration’s coup, while Bell has made the takeover a central theme of his campaign.
Bell has decried appointed takeover leader Jeff Chiesa, a former US Senator, and his $400 an hour contract. However, under Chiesa’s control, Atlantic City has saved over $100 million in settling outstanding casino property tax disputes.
Mayor Don Guardian (R), also a staunch opponent of the takeover, recently admitted that the state played an important role in “helping us turn things around.”