Former U.S. Rep. John Adler, a Democrat who rose from a Township Council seat in Cherry Hill to represent parts of Ocean County in Congress, died Monday. He was 51.

Adler left Congress in January after losing his re-election bid for the 3rd Congressional District seat in November to former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan. Just two years after he won the district on a Democratic ticket led by President Barack Obama, Adler lost amid an anti-incumbent and anti-Democrat tide.

Adler’s death was confirmed by the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, which hired him in February.

The cause of death was not publicly announced Monday night. Adler had recently undergone emergency heart surgery after contracting staph bacterial endocarditis, an infection that attacks the linings of the heart, his law firm confirmed last month. He had been at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia since last month.

He is survived by his wife, Shelley, and their four sons, Jeffrey, Alex, Andrew and Oliver.

Friends and lawmakers across the state Monday recalled Adler’s 17 years as a state senator, where he held powerful posts and carved out a legislative record on anti-corruption and environmental issues.

“He was without a doubt, far and away, one of the brightest people I have ever met,” said Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. “He was clearly committed to public service, being so bright as he was and working so hard.”

Adler grew up in Haddonfield, Camden County, 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 graduated high school.

Adler went to Harvard University, then Harvard Law School. He was just 28 and back in New Jersey working as a lawyer when he won a seat on the Township Council in Cherry Hill.

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 for five terms and continued working as a lawyer.

In Trenton, Adler rose to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he questioned every nominee to state Cabinet positions and passed legislation that gives corrupt officials mandatory prison time and strips them of their pensions.

Often a champion of environmental causes and praised by the environmental lobby, Adler wrote the bill to ban smoking in public places. He also spearheaded bills with a particular focus on southern New Jersey, and as Whelan recalled Monday, made sure they were passed.

Adler gave Whelan the task of shepherding through Ricci’s Law, which requires ignition interlock devices for those convicted of drunken driving. Adler sponsored the law after hearing from Egg Harbor Township residents Richard and Sherri Branca, whose son, Ricci, was killed by a drunken driver in 2006.

“As he was leaving to serve in Washington, John told me, “See that this gets passed,’” Whelan said.

Ricci’s Law was signed in January 2010 by Acting Gov. Steve Sweeney at the Brancas’ home.

In 2008, Adler was elected to Congress with 52 percent of the vote, beating Republican Chris Myers and becoming the first Democrat elected in the 3rd District, which includes large parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, in 122 years. He won the seat vacated by former Rep. Jim Saxton.

As a congressman whose district included the joint military base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Adler’s first bill provided a $250 economic recovery payment to seniors and disabled veterans. He also worked on a bipartisan bill to provide middle-class families with property-tax relief, extend the tax credit for first-time homebuyers and support the cash-for-clunkers tax credit program.

But he struggled with his party’s policy on health care reform, which played badly among independent and Republican majorities in Ocean and Burlington counties. Adler was one of the few Democrats to vote against Obama’s plan when it passed the House of Representatives in March 2010.

His campaign against Runyan was tarnished by accusations that Adler staffers put up a third-party candidate to draw votes from Runyan. Adler denied knowledge of the apparent stunt. But Runyan, bolstered by the support of Christie and the Ocean County Republican Party, won by a 3 percent margin.

Political divisions aside, former colleagues offered warm tributes to Adler and condolences to his family.

Runyan said in a statement: “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.”

Said U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-2nd, who served across the aisle from Adler in Congress: “Having served with John in both Washington and Trenton, I can attest that he was a good man who was deeply dedicated to South Jersey and those he represented.”

Gov. Chris Christie said: “Congressman Adler was a fine public servant and a good person. His untimely death is an awful shock.”

Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said in a statement: “We lost a great person today. John Adler was a remarkable statesman, a dear colleague and a good friend. His commitment to public service and for doing what he believed was right is a testament to the kind of person he was.”

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, Essex, Passaic, who broke the news to a stunned crowd during a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing Monday, described Adler as “a consummate professional, a great public servant and a great family man.”

Whelan said he had spoken to Adler twice since his election loss in November.

“We talked about it, and I could tell he was adjusting, moving on.”

Adler had spoken of future plans, Whelan said.

“I think I said to him something about perhaps returning to public service, in some capacity or another, and we talked about that,” Whelan said. “Sadly, it wasn’t to be.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Juliet Fletcher:

609-292-4935