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State senator denies she has medical condition that could explain outburst seen on video


State Sen. Pat Wiggins, making her first public comments since her interruption of a pastor with an expletive a week ago, said Wednesday in her Capitol office that she regrets the remark, calling it a misunderstanding.

"I blurted out something I didn't mean to," the 68-year-old Santa Rosa Democrat said.

Wiggins has been under pressure to publicly comment on the exchange, in which she uttered the word "bull----" while interrupting the pastor during an otherwise mundane capitol hearing last Wednesday on global warming.

The senator's words -- and the pastor's shocked reaction -- gained widespread notoriety, thanks to a video of the incident being posted on the Web file-sharing service YouTube, the repository of so many political gaffes.

Wiggins and her supporters defended the exchange as an isolated incident while extolling her work as a legislator. Others, however, provided more troubling examples of her reportedly brusque, sometimes odd behavior in recent months -- behavior that has caused concern about the senator's emotional stability.

Wiggins on Wednesday flatly denied that she has any medical conditions that might explain the sudden outburst. Regarding concerns about her ability to recall things, the senator said she has trouble remembering faces but makes up for the deficit by "being friendly."

Emotional apology

At Wednesday's interview in her office, the reporter's name was written on a legal pad placed in front of Wiggins.

Her aides, aware there are concerns the senator has to rely on business cards and statements written in advance for her because of perceived memory issues, said writing the reporter's name down is standard practice, one used by many senators who deal with dozens of people during the course of the day.

The 15-minute interview, held after a morning in which Wiggins garnered passage of bills related to Spud Point Marina at Bodega Bay and identity theft, started with the senator pushing a remote control for a TV across, and off, the table. "Put that somewhere," she said to aides who were in the room with her.

Asked what Pastor Robert Jones of Sacramento's Oak Park United Methodist Church said in his short introduction to his testimony last Wednesday that raised her ire, Wiggins replied, "I thought he was off base, but he might not have been. I'm not sure."

Asked about reports that she berates her staff over trivial matters, Wiggins stated, "I have never berated staff, ever. It never happened. Never."

She then apologized to the reporter for raising her voice. "I'm sorry. I'm getting upset. I didn't mean to be," she said.

Reported outbursts

Sources who had told The Press Democrat they were present at a meeting where Wiggins "flew off the handle" at a staffer over an inconsequential matter, reaffirmed Wednesday their initial descriptions of the incident.

The senator's staff said the office has received hundreds of angry e-mails and phone calls regarding the controversy with the pastor.

Wiggins, however, said she hadn't heard from anyone, and thus could not answer a question as to how she thinks the public should interpret what she said to the pastor.

While taking one such phone call placed to the senator's office Wednesday, her receptionist said, "I'm sorry, sir. I don't know what her state of mind was." He then took down the caller's name and number and said someone would be returning the call.

A few times, Wiggins turned to her chief of staff, Sean MacNeil, and spokesman, David Miller, with an inquisitive look on her face. Her aides have attributed such looks to a severe hearing problem that requires her to wear a special earphone on the Senate floor.

"It doesn't faze us," MacNeil said of Wiggins raising her voice at people. "For people not accustomed to her, they might say, 'Why does she yell? Why does she have to talk loudly?' "

When asked whether her misunderstanding with the pastor was due to a hearing issue, Wiggins became frustrated and ended the interview, saying she had to get back to the Senate floor.

She then hugged the reporter.

"I hug everyone," she said.

Straight shooter

Wiggins is not the first legislator to use colorful language during the course of business. John Burton, retired president pro tem of the state Senate, was as well known for his salty tongue as he was for his political acumen.

In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney grabbed headlines when he directed profanity at Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during a photo shoot on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

There are those who see humor in Wiggins' situation.

During Wednesday's Senate floor session, Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, leaned over and said something to a fellow senator before adding out loud with a laugh, "You know that's total bull----, to quote somebody."

Ashburn declined through his aides to elaborate on his comments.

There are those who see a double standard with concerns being raised about Wiggins' use of crude language.

Cindy Thomas, a Petaluma nurse and Wiggins supporter, said Wednesday at the Capitol that she took the senator's remarks to the pastor as a sign of strength.

"It's a perfect example of how she goes to bat for people. She's a no-holds-barred person," said Thomas, who was in Sacramento on Wednesday with United Health Workers of America to lobby legislators.

"She doesn't bull---- us," Thomas said. "She talks in terms everyday people can understand, and not in Sacramento-ese."

Still, it's rare for a legislator to dress down someone in an open Capitol forum. Wiggins' outburst came as Jones was stating that minorities are often excluded from debates on big policy issues and burdened by fees associated with these decisions, a contention that would otherwise appear to resonate with Wiggins' own liberal outlook.

Faulty memory

But some capitol insiders said it was not the first time Wiggins has been abrupt with people. A staff member for one Republican senator said Wednesday that he witnessed Wiggins taking a fellow senator to task for showing up to the hearing late.

The staff member, who asked that his name not be used, said people complain about Wiggins not following basic protocol or interjecting herself into a debate when she shouldn't. "She doesn't remember stuff," the person said. "It blows your mind."

As of Wednesday, aides said Wiggins was still trying to make contact with Jones to apologize for her behavior, which in a letter to the pastor she summarized as "inappropriate for a legislative hearing."

State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, the co-chairwoman of last Wednesday's hearing, said she was "surprised" by Wiggins' comments and said she has not witnessed similar behavior from Wiggins in the past.

Kehoe said Wiggins apologized to her personally. She also asked Wiggins to make a brief statement at a committee meeting the pair will attend next week.

Wiggins, however, said she has already apologized publicly and seemed ready Wednesday to put the incident behind her.

Her schedule later in the evening included meeting with a group of Democratic women at the private Sutter Club and hosting a fund-raiser at the Sheraton hotel.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek J. Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com