Howard Kupperman, the longtime mayor of Longport who sponsored Atlantic City’s casino legislation in his one term as a state assemblyman, has died at age 82.
Kupperman died of bladder cancer Tuesday in Florida, where he’d lived since 2009, said his wife, Jane. An avid sailor, he spent much of his retirement on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he’d lived since 1994.
“When I remember him, he’s on a sailboat in the blue, blue Caribbean Sea,” Jane said Tuesday. “That’s where he’s happiest and that’s where I picture him in my mind.”
Born in Atlantic City in 1931, Kupperman received an economics degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania before serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He rose to the rank of major before his retirement from the service. In 1961, he graduated from Rutgers School of Law and maintained a legal practice until 1990, when he was appointed a workers’ compensation judge.
But Kupperman is best known for two contributions that changed the landscape — one of them literally — of Absecon Island.
After being elected as a Republican to the state General Assembly in 1975, he sponsored a bill written by his one-time political rival Steven Perskie to bring casino gambling to Atlantic City. An earlier referendum had previously been defeated.
“He was not only my legislative colleague in the district, but my principal ally on the Republican side,” said Perskie, then a Democratic state assemblyman. “We had to work both sides of the aisle.”
Kupperman made suggestions along the way and helped wrangle the necessary Republican votes, he said, noting that his colleague was easy to work with. That came even after the two had been on different tickets for three elections. In 1973, they were direct opponents for a State Assembly seat that the incumbent Perskie won.
“He was a partner in every sense of the word and that’s especially important because we crossed party lines to do it,” Perskie said. “In our modern political environment, that idea is probably incomprehensible.”
Bill Fiore, another former Longport mayor, said Kupperman was proud that he was able to secure the Republican votes the measure needed to pass.
“In that one term — he did not get re-elected — he brought the biggest bill to Atlantic County,” he said.
Fiore said he and Kupperman often spent many Saturdays driving around the borough together to check on things such as street cleaning.
“He being a lawyer and me a businessman, we had different angles on what we saw for the city, but we never had an argument in the 12 years we served together,” he said.
Kupperman spent about 25 years as a Longport commissioner, including nine years as mayor between 1983 and 1992. From that time, he’s best remembered for a smile — and not just his own.
In October 1982, the signature smiley face was added to the borough’s 50-year-old water tower by Kupperman — who as commissioner supervised Public Works — upon the suggestion of his daughter. The inspiration came from a button his daughter wore.
“He was very pleased with the smiley face,” Jane said. “It always made him happy.”
As the water tower would suggest, she said her husband a generous and gregarious man.
“He’s a guy who walks in a room with a smile on his face,” she said. “He loves people and people love him.”
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