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'Health issues' led to Wiggins' decision not to seek re-election


State Sen. Pat Wiggins' stunning announcement Sunday that she will not seek another term in 2010 capped a whirlwind 48 hours in which the Santa Rosa Democrat learned she was suffering from previously unknown health issues, according to her staff.

But whether the 69-year-old senator, whose unusual behavior over a period of months has been the subject of much speculation, received some sort of medical diagnosis on Friday is unclear.

David Miller, the senator's press secretary, said Monday, as he has as recently as Thursday, that she does not have a "medical condition" that would interfere with her continuing with the job.

He declined to elaborate further, however, saying it is up to Wiggins whether she wants to talk about her health.

The senator on Monday once again did not respond to a request for an interview on the subject. She was in Sacramento where the Legislature is in session.

In the meantime, Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, announced Monday that she will seek the 2nd District Senate seat being vacated by her close political ally and friend. The sprawling district includes 850,000 people living in Humboldt, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties and large swaths of Sonoma and Solano counties.

Evans called Wiggins' decision to step down next year the "right thing, both for herself and the district she represents." She added that Wiggins, who was first elected to the Santa Rosa City Council in 1994, has shown a "great deal of courage to do the work she's done with the disabilities she has."

Wiggins cited "physical disabilities" at Sunday's event at Kendall-Jackson Winery as the reasons why she won't seek re-election. The senator has a well-documented hearing problem that requires her to use special equipment when conducting legislative business.

But Miller said these disabilities are separate from the "health issues" he said came to light on Friday and led her to reconsider her campaign.

"The decision she reached over the last few days was made with the interests of her constituents in mind, and with an eye to the future," Miller said. "She does not know where she will be in three or four years. Whether or not she chooses to elaborate on her new health issues is something for her to decide, and her alone."

Miller said these new issues are separate from those raised in a story in The Press Democrat on Friday that outlined concerns about the senator following months of her often strange behavior, including outbursts, odd displays of affection and a seeming inability at times to focus or remember things.

"Her decision to serve the remainder of her current term but not seek re-election was not based on issues that were brought to her attention by the media," Miller said.

In a statement, Wiggins said her commitment to fighting for the people of the North Coast "has not diminished a bit."

"But," the release said, "the physical demands of representing a district that stretches from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay have become progressively more challenging for me. I am proud of my legislative accomplishments. I know I have made a difference with my votes and the measures I have carried for my district. I am equally proud of the message I have been able to send to everyone who is physically-challenged."

Several high-ranking Democratic officials from around the state issued statements Monday praising Wiggins for her work.

That included California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, who noted that Wiggins, as founder of the Smart Growth Caucus, helped enact the most comprehensive state land use and infrastructure law in 30 years.

"It saddens me that Pat has decided not to seek re-election because of health issues," Burton said. "Her presence will be deeply missed in the Capitol when she retires at the end of her term."

The office of Senate president Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, released a lengthy list of Wiggins' legislative accomplishments and noted that last year she had received scorecards with 100 per cent positive ratings from the Sierra Club, California League of Conservation Voters, California Labor Federation, Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women, American Cancer Society and the Consumer Federation of California. She also was named Legislator of the Year by the California State Sheriffs Association.

Miller said Wiggins began contacting friends and family on Friday to tell them of her changed plans. That was followed on Saturday with a conversation between Wiggins and Steinberg, according to a spokeswoman.

Then on Sunday, a teary Wiggins told shocked supporters at what was supposed to be her campaign kick-off that she was not running after all.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she could tell the moment she saw Wiggins and her husband, Guy Conner, that something was wrong.

"They looked really down," she said.

Evans said Wiggins is supporting her for the Senate seat. Evans said she also has the support of Senate and Assembly Democratic leadership, and that she is hoping to continue the work she's begun on foster care, budget overhaul and other issues.

Roseland School District trustee David Rosas has also entered the fray.

Wiggins has 15 months remaining in her term, and a spokeswoman for Steinberg said the Senate leader has "confidence" in Wiggins' ability to continue to serve her district.

"She has proven to have indispensable energy throughout this entire year — which has included a handful of overnight floor sessions and hours upon hours of vigorous budget debates, to say the least," Alicia Trost said.

Trost said Steinberg considers Wiggins' health issues to be a "personal matter."

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