Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, left, and Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles conduct last-minute phone calls Monday at Gary's Restaurant in Pleasantville before the announcement that Balles will run for state Senate on Republican ticket.

Ben Fogletto

PLEASANTVILLE — Atlantic County Sheriff Frank X. Balles formally kicked off his race for state Senate on Monday, launching his campaign with attacks on incumbent Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, at a crowded restaurant surrounded by supporters and fellow Republicans.

Balles, 50, said he was running for the Legislature in the 2nd Legislative District, which includes most of Atlantic County, because Pennsylvania has passed Atlantic City as a gaming destination. He blamed Whelan for the region’s woes.

“Our towns, our businesses, our families, our schools are all facing many challenges,” Balles told the crowd of about 150 people. “And sadly, our current senator has proven he is not up to the job.”

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Whelan’s “been there too long and his best ideas are behind him,” Balles added later. “We need a full-time senator, not a senator of convenience.” Balles pledged to be a “full-time senator,” saying he would work to bring jobs to the region and join forces with Gov. Chris Christie to make Atlantic City clean and safe.

Balles told reporters afterward that Whelan has been in public office for more than 30 years, and said if one is happy with the state of Atlantic City and the district, they should vote for him.

He said that if elected, he would ensure the state budget is balanced, a state constitutional requirement. He added that spending needs to be reduced, and said he would not vote for any tax increase.

Balles, of Egg Harbor Township, was a 22-year veteran of the Pleasantville Police Department until he won election to be Atlantic County Sheriff in 2008 over incumbent Jim McGettigan by a convincing 55- to 45-percentage point margin. He was one of the few Republicans to win in a year when many Democrats, from President Barack Obama on down, triumphed.

Balles won re-election to another three-year term in 2011. When he ran, he pointed to the improvements in training and programs in his office, including the creation of a K-9 unit, a community-policing unit and the reinstitution of patrols in western Atlantic County where communities otherwise rely on State Police.

He thanked people at the Monday event for their support, saying it was an honor to be the sheriff.

“I ask everyone to look at my record of accomplishments and see what we can do in Atlantic County,” he said.

A number of state and regional officials attended, including Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., R-Morris, Somerset, Union, the state Senate minority leader. He praised Balles as a “great sheriff,” and said his interest in the race is “very high.”

Balles is expected to face Whelan, D-Atlantic, a former Atlantic City Councilman and three-term resort mayor. Whelan, 64, would not confirm he was running, but other Democrats said an announcement was expected in the coming weeks.

After a term in the Assembly, Whelan was elected to the state Senate in 2007 and re-elected in 2011 in what is the state’s most expensive legislative race, a nasty battle with more than $3 million spent by Whelan and then-Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic.

In the Senate, he co-chaired the legislative gaming summit in 2010 and later authored the law to create the Atlantic City Tourism District.

Other actions include sponsoring the VETeach Pilot Program that makes it easier for military veterans to transition to the classroom, a bill that would make it easier for state colleges to build dormitories and classrooms through public-private partnerships and legislation that would work to keep casinos open in the event of a state budget shutdown.

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