Whelan, who was the current state senator representing Atlantic City, was from Philadelphia originally, but spent his summers in the Boardwalk town. He was a lifeguard in his teen years, became a championship swimmer at Temple University, and later became a teacher in the Atlantic City school system. He ran for city council in the early 1980s, and was elected mayor in 1989. He served three terms as mayor until being defeated in 2001. He then served in the state Assembly from 2005 to 2007, when he was elected to the state Senate.
Whelan was elected mayor in a landslide because it had become clear by that time that casino gaming was not the panacea that everyone had assumed it would be, and his platform of using money from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) to grow the attractions of the city was widely accepted.
During his term, Whelan participated in the approval and construction of the Walk, an outlet mall developed by the Cordish Companies in the middle of the city; the connector project that links the Atlantic City Expressway with the Marina district where construction was under way on what would become the Borgata casino, today the most successful casino in the city; and a baseball stadium that is currently vacant, but was home to the Atlantic City Surf of the independent Atlantic League for more than 10 years.