What is off-limits in the lives of our elected officials?

The announcement last Sunday by Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, that she would not seek another term marked the abrupt end of a two-decade political career and opened up a coveted Senate seat. But Wiggins’ health issues were no secret in Sacramento. For months, Capitol observers noticed a visible decline in Wiggins’ performance – though little was mentioned publicly.

Eyebrows were raised last week in the Assembly Appropriations Committee when chair Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, spoke loudly and slowly to the hard-of-hearing Wiggins. The exchange was one of the several recently that added to the sense that Wiggins was being protected by a wall of silence by her leadership, staff and the press  — and by a set of unwritten laws that govern life in the Capitol community.

The informal media truce about Wiggins health was broken last week in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, in an Aug. 20 story, titled, “Wiggins’ behavior raises health questions.” It detailed allegations that Wiggins was increasingly confused and needed constant assistance from her staff due to some unspecified mental decline. Three days later, Wiggins announced at a public appearance with her husband, Guy Conner, that she would not be seeking reelection.

Around the Capitol, the Wiggins announcement was greeted with a sense of inevitability. Wiggins’ health was one of the issues in the Capitol that was informally off limits. It’s no accident that the story that preceded her eventual announcement was not written by a Capitol beat reporter but, rather, by a reporter based in Santa Rosa.

The details of Wiggins’ deteriorating health is just the latest example of this Capitol code of conduct that is, depending on one’s point of view, either a deceitful reminder of the cliquishness of the Capitol community or an example of one of the last personal boundaries to exist in the current media age.

For years, personal issues including health and personal foibles have been passed over by the Capitol press, even though they are all but public secrets in and around the Capitol.

This was last brought into sharp focus after the disappearance of Chandra Levy, an intern in the Congressional office of former Assemblyman Gary Condit. To Sacramento, Condit was known as hard-partying Assemblyman, directly at odds with his image of a conservative family man in his Modesto district. But the stories about this split did not hit the press until Levy’s disappearance.

Many lawmakers live these sorts of “double lives” in Sacramento and at home, and many times they go unreported, if not unnoticed, by the press. The Legislature itself, through its staff and leaders, also offers protections to these lawmakers.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg was prepared to back Wiggins for reelection, despite her noticeable decline. Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost, said “(Wiggins’) decision not to seek reelection was a personal one,” Trost said. “The pro tem didn’t play a role in it.”

“We don’t discuss any medical-related issues about a member or a staff person publicly. Medical issues are personal matters,” she added.

However, according to one highly-placed source in the Senate, Wiggins’ situation was being continuously monitored by caucus leadership.

Wiggins joined the Assembly in 2000 and served for several years without any serious incidents. But over at least the last two years, she has become known for odd outburst and sometimes unprofessional behavior, generally blamed on a long-standing but worsening hearing problem. But it wasn’t until last week, Wiggins’ home-town paper, the Press Democrat, reported the issue in detail. “Let’s be clear about something. I don’t want to write about this. Nobody enjoys writing or talking about this,” columnist Paul Gullixson wrote.
On July 18, the Napa County Register said in an editorial that “this year, as Wiggins has appeared at local events, including a fund-raiser for her own campaign coffers, Napa County residents have come away concerned about her well-being. Political officials and constituents, careful to speak off the record, wonder about Wiggins’ conduct.”

That “situation” came to a head just over a year ago when she was caught on tape interrupting Sacramento pastor Robert Jones during a committee hearing on global warming legislation by saying “Excuse me, but I think your arguments are bullshit.”

The widely-reported remark prompted a series of stories in the Press Democrat that detailed Wiggins’ “inappropriate comments, displays of temper and the need to speak from prepared scripts.”

Wiggins is the latest in a series of lawmakers who, suffering illness or debilitation, have been protected by their staffs. Unlike reporters and staff members, however, political rivals sometimes are only too happy to refer to the illness.

A recent example of a legislator who did disclose health problems in detail was Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, who survived a bout of cancer while in the Assembly in 2004 and 2005. About the same time, freshman Assemblyman Mike Gordon was dying of a brain tumor. At the time, reporters complained that Gordon’s staff imposed a media blackout, though his illness progressed so quickly he died only three months after diagnosis.

“When Jenny was sick and diagnosed with cancer, we put out a press release saying what happened and what the diagnosis was,” said Ray Sotero, her longtime press spokesman. “It’s still on our website. A year later when she got out of chemotherapy, we put up a press release on that. We were always up-front about her status.”

But Oropeza’s case may also serve as an example for why it can be dangerous to be “up-front” about an illness.

Her press releases included the information that Oropeza had missed 137 days of work, including about two dozen days of Assembly session, due to her illness. Oropeza was elected to the Senate the next year. But the year after that, when she ran for Congress, opponent Laura Richardson used absences in an attack mailer that went out to voters less than a week before the election, without noting the reason Oropeza had been away. There was also speculation that Oropeza’s cancer played a role in a race to replace a five-term congresswoman, Juanita Millender-McDonald, who had herself just died of colon cancer. Richardson, whose dubious personal real estate transactions later drew national attention, won the race.

Wiggins is hardly the first lawmaker to face questions about her health. In 2006, an 80 year-old Nell Soto termed out of the Senate and won back her old Assembly seat, saying there was key legislation she wanted to carry while serving out one last term. Instead, she was too ill to serve most of that term.

The late Ralph Dills served 32 years in state Senate, finally being forced out by term limits in 1998. By then he was 88 years old, with oddly dyed hair and a reputation for not always being aware of what was going on around him.

Terms limits have made both legislative bodies younger, but the median age of the Senate has risen slightly since the last session, to 57. It has 13 members aged 60 or older, though no one besides Wiggins has been dogged with such health-related rumors recently. However, 75 year-old Ed Vincent termed out last year after missing extensive time due to illness in his last term.

The most noted recent case was that of former Senator Carole Migden. Though only 61, Migden’s behavior had become increasingly erratic, ultimately culminating in a May 2007 reckless driving incident that
ended in an accident causing two injuries and ultimately cost the state a $335,000 settlement. Midgen blamed the events on medication from an undisclosed case of leukemia.

Despite all these problems, Senate Democrats circled the wagons around Midgen when then-Assemblyman Mark Leno announced that he was challenging her in March, 2007. She ultimately lost the primary to Leno by a wide margin, but several senators campaigned for her.

However, this may have had more to do with Senators looking after their own electoral health. According to one high level Senate staffer during this time, many in the Senate Democratic Caucus were motivated mainly by a desire to prevent a precedent of an Assemblymember challenging a sitting Senator from their own party.

Reporting on personal matters – medical or otherwise – raises issues of ethics and taste in the lives of elected officials. What is legitimately “off-limits” and what does the public have the right to know? And even if electeds wish to keep certain information confidential, what responsibilities do reporters have when it comes to information about members’ personal lives?

The case of Pat Wiggins underscores some of the murkiness of these questions, and is a reminder that, for good or bad, the concept of a Capitol community does indeed exist.

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