Pat Wiggins made the right choice.

Concerns about her behavior and well-being are legitimate and serious, and they extend far beyond the hearing loss that the Santa Rosa Democrat has coped with throughout her public career.

Her decision to leave the state Senate at the end of her term in 2010, announced Sunday to supporters at a fund-raiser in Santa Rosa, will benefit her 850,000 constituents and burnish her legacy.

Wiggins was at the front of the political wave that changed the direction of Sonoma County politics in the early 1990s, as power began shifting from conservative elected officials and business and development interests to liberals, neighborhood groups, organized labor and environmental interest.

A co-founder of Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa and a former legislative aide, Wiggins was elected to the Santa Rosa City Council in 1994 and the state Assembly four years later. In 2006, she won a state Senate seat representing a geographically diverse district that stretches from Humboldt County's redwood forests to the Carquinez Strait in Solano County.

In Sacramento, as in Santa Rosa, Wiggins has been an advocate for open space and smart growth as well as for vocational education programs. Last year, she passed 24 bills and 17 were enacted into law — more than any other member of the Legislature. The legislation covered subjects ranging from home winemaking and standards for olive oil to management of solid waste and salmon fisheries.

However, it had become increasingly evident that Wiggins is no longer up to the demands of serving in the state Senate.

Concerns about her ability to focus and her grasp of complicated issues were heard prior to the 2006 election, and they have increased as constituents, journalists and others witnessed bizarre behavior. At times, she doesn't appear to recognize people — even shortly after they introduce themselves.

In the Capitol, Wiggins is accompanied almost everywhere by loyal aides, who serve as both legislative assistants and bodyguards, guiding her away from encounters with reporters.

On Monday, she publicly acknowedged her health problems for the first time, issuing a statement that said in part "the physical demands .<TH>.<TH>. have become progressively more challenging for me." She offered no further details but emphasized that she intends to complete her state Senate term, which runs through November 2010.

Friends and fellow legislators have been reluctant to discuss the situation on the record, citing her accomplishments and their discomfort with discussing such personal matters. But as it became clear that Wiggins planned to seek re-election next year, a few people agreed to air their concerns.

"To be honest, I think she's just not competent," Connie Codding bluntly told Staff Writer Derek J. Moore last week.

Hard words, indeed. But they reflect widespread misgivings and are given added credence by Codding's experience with her husband's dementia.

Pat Wiggins can be proud of her career and achievements, including her recognition that it's time to pass the baton.