Sen. Pat Wiggins' announcement last week that she is giving up several key committee posts is further evidence of her diminished role in Sacramento at a time when the state's budget crisis intensifies.
The Santa Rosa Democrat's Capitol staff insists Wiggins is still representing the interests of her constituents in the vast 2nd Senate district. But they refuse to release her schedule, grant an interview or allow her to be photographed.
The 69-year-old Wiggins cited unspecified health problems as the reasons why she was dropping out of the race for her second four-year term and for stepping away from the six committee posts, including as chairwoman of the influential Local Government Committee.
With 11 months remaining in the senator's final term, she has not addressed how she will represent the interests of more than 800,000 people living in the district that stretches from Santa Rosa to Eureka.
Her staff and friends are asking people to respect her privacy as she undergoes treatment for a medical condition that no one connected with her will publicly identify.
"Her medical privacy is protected by law and her doctor has said she can continue in her job. That's really the only thing the public needs to know," said Sebastopol resident Marty Roberts, a longtime friend of the senator who helped design her Web site.
But Wiggins' high-profile role in public office at a time when the state is facing problems of historic magnitude has led to questions about her ability to carry out her job and whether she should give a full accounting of her condition, as other politicians have done in Sacramento.
Others maintain that such questions cross the line of what the public is entitled to know about their elected officials.
Framing the discussion is the importance of Wiggins' vote in the Senate, where Democrats are at war with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican lawmakers over another massive spending shortfall — and are two votes short of passing a budget without Republican help.
There's also the political upheaval and financial cost of a special election should Wiggins step down early.
"In politics, it's really one of the most delicate situations," Petaluma-based political consultant Brian Sobel said of an elected official's health problems. "Look at Pat's years of public service. When you slice it, it's a sad chapter. Nobody, whether it's Ted Kennedy or anybody else, wants to have their last year in public office overshadowed by illness."
Refuses to offer specifics
Wiggins has steadfastly refused to detail concerns about her health. As recently as August, she was telling people she was running for re-election, despite growing speculation about her erratic behavior, odd outbursts and apparent difficulty staying on topic or remembering names.
After the media began detailing these concerns, the senator announced at what was supposed to be her campaign kick-off event that she was dropping out of the race, citing unspecified health reasons in a brief statement she read from notes.
Last week was the first time Wiggins' staff acknowledged that she is undergoing medical treatment. They will not say what that treatment entails, even as they cited it as the reason why the senator needed to relinquish so many of her committee posts.
Those positions included chairing the Local Government Committee, which reviews bills pertaining to cities, counties, special districts and redevelopment agencies.