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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.

Critical time

The committee's work is important at a time when the governor has sought to pull more money from local coffers to help bridge the state's budget gap, projected to be at least $20billion.

Wiggins was absent from the committee's most recent meeting on Jan. 9. She also did not attend the governor's final State of the State address that same day.

Her staff said Wiggins was at home ill.

Three days after the governor's speech, Senate Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg announced new committee assignments. Although Wiggins lost more posts than any other senator, she still is a member, but not chairwoman, of the Local Government Committee, as well as a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

"The fact that she asked that her committee workload be reduced does not diminish the fact that she will continue to serve on two committees which remain near and dear to her — local government and veterans affairs — and that she will continue to vote on all bills that come to the Senate floor," David Miller, the senator's press aide, said in a statement. "She continues to make the final call on important decisions related to her work as a senator, including legislation."

Alicia Trost, Steinberg's press secretary, said the Senate leader is "confident she (Wiggins) can perform the core functions of her office" after the pair met to discuss her situation.

Asked to define those duties, Trost said "anything one would expect of a sitting senator."

Yet there are many duties that Wiggins does not do that separate her from her Senate colleagues, such as giving unscripted interviews to the media or engaging in committee debate.

Her diminished role does not represent the first time that an elected official in California has been forced to scale back their job duties because of an illness.

Nell Soto, a Pomona Democrat, was termed out of the Senate and won back her old Assembly seat in 2006. But at the age of 80, she was too ill to serve most of that two-year term, and visitors to her Capitol office found it unoccupied.

"We've had all kinds of instances where there have been people dealing with cancer, or accidents, and presumably the staff is doing the work for the district," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University.

&‘You don't want to pile on'

She said that had Wiggins decided to seek re-election, questions about the senator's health would have been more pertinent.

"Voters do have a right to have an engaged representative. But I think we also have to be humane about it, and if she's battling something, you don't want to pile on," O'Connor said.

There also are examples of elected officials facing political fallout as a result of opening up about their health issues.

Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, detailed her battle with cancer in 2004 and 2005 in press releases that updated her condition, including the fact she missed 137 days of work. When she ran for Congress, her opponent in the race cited the absences in attack ads.

Sobel recalled the case of Bill Filante, a North Coast Republican assemblyman who lost his bid for Congress to Lynn Woolsey in 1992. At the time of the general election, Filante was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and he did not campaign for the office.

Fearing political reprisal, Filante's staff initially kept his diagnosis under wraps. When word got out, they put a positive spin on it by telling people that the assemblyman's prognosis looked good.

"This is not about Pat Wiggins," said Sobel, a former Petaluma councilman. "This is a close-the-ranks that occurs on both sides of the aisle, and frankly, crosses the aisle. What's that expression? &‘There but for the grace of God go I'?"

Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said elected officials are not given much privacy. "We understand that," she said.

But Evans, who is running to replace Wiggins in the 2nd District Senate seat, said Wiggins "deserves the opportunity to get the necessary treatment and decide whether she could continue."

Were Wiggins to resign, a special election might have to be called to fill the vacancy, depending on when she stepped down. The cost to hold such an election just in Sonoma County would be nearly $500,000, according to election officials.

Evans would likely seek the seat, leaving open her Assembly post if she prevailed. She also would have to give up her prominent role as chairwoman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

As far as the interests of those who live in the 2nd District are concerned, former Democratic Congressman Doug Bosco said it doesn't make a major difference either way whether Wiggins serves out her term or resigns, given the relatively short amount of time she has left in office and the realities of how things work in Sacramento.

"These organizations are so complicated," he said. "If you listen to each member of the Legislature talk, you'd think they are the most powerful person up there. But in reality, the leadership makes the decisions that affect everybody's lives."

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


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