By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Former North Coast state Sen. Pat Wiggins died early Thursday after a long illness, and tributes poured in from friends and public officials for the Democrat who overcame a hearing disability during a 14-year career in politics.
Wiggins, who also served on the Santa Rosa City Council and in the state Assembly, was 73. She died at an assisted living facility in Forestville.
“Pat lived life to the fullest,” said Guy Conner of Santa Rosa, Wiggins’ husband of 30 years. “As a parent, friend and public servant, Pat’s considerable talents and vivacious personality leave the people she touched far better off.”
Rue Furch of Sebastopol, a longtime friend and former Sonoma County planning commissioner, said she and Conner sat with Wiggins Wednesday night, knowing it was likely the “last chance we got to say goodbye.”
“It was just extremely peaceful,” Furch said. “That was all we hoped for.”
The cause of Wiggins’ death was not disclosed. Nor was there ever a public explanation of an odd pattern of behavior that surfaced in 2009 prior to her decision not to seek re-election the following year.
A close friend declined to describe Wiggins’ illness, saying it had been “kept private by the family.”
Endowed with a keen mind, an engaging nature and a commitment to her principles, Wiggins entered public office in the mid-1990s and became a leader of the local Democratic Party’s liberal faction.
“She loved to serve the community,” said Marty Roberts of Sebastopol, a close friend who recalled that Conner and Wiggins were among the founders of Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa in the 1980s, when Santa Rosa’s growth was an issue and the City Council had a “conservative” tilt, Roberts said.
Wiggins lost her first bid for a council seat in 1992 but won two years later, launching a career marked by her advocacy for the concept of “smart growth.”
“She many times said, ‘This was the work I was born to do,’” Roberts said.
North Coast Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Senate President pro tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, were among those paying homage to Wiggins.
State Sen. Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa, who succeeded Wiggins in both the Assembly and Senate, adjourned the Senate floor session Thursday in Wiggins’ memory.
“She was not only my former colleague on the Santa Rosa City Council, she was my friend and my hero and really my older sister because everywhere Pat went, I seemed to follow,” Evans said on the Senate floor.
Wiggins was “the vanguard of a new progressive movement in our community, one that I’ve been very grateful to represent myself,” Evans said.
Evans revealed that Wiggins faced “profound difficulties” during her six years in the Assembly and four years in the Senate.
“She was almost completely deaf,” Evans said. “Although she didn’t make a big deal of it, she had a very, very difficult time hearing anything, and she mostly read lips, and that’s how she understood what people were saying to her.”
Michael Allen of Santa Rosa, a former legislative aide to Wiggins, said on his Facebook page: “It always amazed me that the person who could hear the worst listened the best. She would listen to anyone and she would help anyone.”
Thompson, whose district includes Santa Rosa, said in a statement that Wiggins was “a great friend and tremendous public servant.”
“I’ve known her since before I started my career in public office,” said Thompson, who served in the state Senate before he was elected to Congress in 1998.
“She was with me in my earliest campaigns. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for her guidance,” Thompson said. “Pat devoted her life to public service and to the idea that each of us has a responsibility to make our communities better places.”
Steinberg said he was saddened by the loss of a “good friend and colleague,” calling Wiggins “a gracious, thoughtful and visionary public servant, but more importantly, a reliable and trusted friend.”
The Senate leader said Wiggins’ advocacy for the wine industry, including control of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a vineyard pest, is “legendary among growers and wine producers.”
Perez said in a statement that Wiggins was “one of the Legislature’s leading advocates for policies that encourage smart growth and discourage sprawl.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with her husband, Guy, and their family and with Pat’s many, many friends,” Perez said.
Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, said Wiggins was “an enthusiastic leader on the environment, local government issues, and smart growth in the state Capitol.”
Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, said that he and Wiggins, representing overlapping districts in the Assembly and Senate, were “legislative partners who worked together to defend the coast, restore fisheries and protect rural health care and education.”
Allen, who posted a tribute to Wiggins on his Facebook page, praised her advocacy for career and technical education in schools, “which is now mainstream again.”
“She never asked for, or wanted, the spotlight,” said Allen, who served a term in the Assembly. “She just wanted to listen to people and learn and then turn around and fight for their causes.”
A native Californian from Pasadena, Wiggins moved to Santa Rosa in 1984. A former computer systems analyst, she was elected to the Santa Rosa council in 1994 and helped strengthen local laws that restrict growth to within a defined urban area.
Wiggins was elected to the Assembly in 1998, representing Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties until she was forced out of office by term limits in 2004. Two years later, she won election to the state Senate, where she compiled one of the best attendance records of any senator.
She was campaigning for a second term in 2009 when concerns arose about her behavior, including verbal outbursts, odd displays of affection and apparent inability at times to focus on matters at hand.
During a committee hearing on global warming, Wiggins interrupted a Sacramento pastor, telling him his testimony was “bull—-,” and later was unable to explain her comment.
Aides insisted there was nothing wrong, shielded Wiggins from press interviews and escorted her around the Capitol.
At a Santa Rosa area fundraiser in August 2009, a tearful Wiggins told supporters she was quitting the race, but gave no specific reason.
“I think it’s the best thing for her and her family,” Roberts said at the time.
On Wednesday, Roberts recalled better times, saying Wiggins and Conner, her friends for 30 years, were “like family to me.”
“Pat was always very dedicated to her work, but she did like to kick back and have fun,” Roberts said.
They shared trips to the coast and once drove across the country, the three friends and Roberts’ dog Molly sharing a car. “She had a wonderful laugh and a twinkle in her eye,” Roberts said.
Kathie Reilly, a cousin, said Wiggins was her “political savant,” because of her experience, and “a lot of fun at our family gatherings.”
“I thought it was so cool to have a cousin who was so ‘with it,’” Reilly said.
In addition to her husband, Wiggins is survived by her stepsons, Steve Silverman of Scottsdale, Ariz., and James Silverman of Owings Mills, Md., and four grandchildren.
A celebration of her life will be at 1 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Friedman Center in Santa Rosa. Memorial donations may be made to the Sonoma Land Trust or to the Pat Wiggins Fund at Conservation Action Fund for Education.
Staff Writer Brett Wilkison contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.