The words were familiar enough to City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell. After all, she was swearing in for the fifth time as the representative of Sacramento’s District 8, which takes in the largely working-class communities of Meadowview, Parkway and North Laguna.
But as she raised her hand that day in December 2012, preparing for another four years in office, “I mispronounced several words,” she recalled in an interview Monday. “They didn’t come out right.”
In the months since, slowly but progressively, Pannell has found it more difficult to form words. So much so, she said, that she has decided, reluctantly, to retire in June. Her departure will bring an end to a family dynasty of sorts for Sacramento politics: Pannell will leave the council after 16 years in the position her husband, Sam, held for six years until his death in 1997.
Dr. Zachary Miller, Pannell’s physician at UC San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center, said Pannell suffers from primary progressive aphasia, a rare neurological condition that makes speech and communication difficult and can lead to further disability. The condition, sometimes associated with stroke, brain tumors and Alzheimer’s disease, has so far not affected Pannell’s cognitive abilities or mobility, she said, but she no longer believes she can serve effectively on the council.
Pannell, who is 65, plans to inform Mayor Kevin Johnson and fellow council members today about her decision. Her last day in office will be June 23.
City Clerk Shirley Concolino said she would ask the City Council, once Pannell retires, to call a special election to fill her seat. That vote probably will take place during the November general election, and the candidate who receives the most votes will serve the remainder of Pannell’s term, which extends into 2016.
Pannell’s seat will remain vacant from June until December, Concolino said, when a new council member will be sworn in.
On Monday, Pannell met for an interview at one of her pet projects: the Valley Hi-North Laguna Library, a gleaming $18 million facility that opened in 2009, bringing high-tech services to a part of her district that long had been underserved. Over the next hour, she talked about her accidental foray into politics, her accomplishments and struggles, and a future clouded by an illness that is all the more frightening because of its mysteriousness. Tests and therapy are ongoing, she said.
Dressed in business attire and black overcoat, her hair neatly cropped, Pannell appeared relaxed and healthy. She spoke slowly and haltingly, occasionally looking to her district director, Matthew Bryant, for help with words and details.
At first, despite CT scans, MRIs and other tests, doctors found no obvious explanation for her speech problems, Pannell said. In recent months, she has been a patient at the Speech and Memory Center at UCSF.
Pannell said she has discussed her condition with only a few close friends. Never particularly chatty during council sessions, she has gone mostly silent in public.
One of the people Pannell has confided in is former Mayor Heather Fargo, who was still in office when she disclosed in 2007 that she had been suffering for years from multiple sclerosis. Fargo uses a walker now and has remained active in community groups. She urged Pannell to carry on with her term during a recent lunch at the Fox & Goose restaurant and bar in Sacramento.
“I understand how frustrated she is, not having a clear voice,” Fargo said. “But I think she has done a phenomenal job for her constituents. I thought maybe some reasonable accommodation could be made.”
Fargo suggested Pannell could remain on the council, possibly by writing down her thoughts and responses and allowing someone else to recite them at public meetings. Pannell said she thought about it, “but I decided to stick with my plan.”
“I cried,” she acknowledged, reaching for a tissue. “I’m still crying.”
Beginning in June, she said, her primary focus will be on finding the underlying causes of her speech difficulties and possible treatment options.
Miller, an adjunct professor of neurology at UCSF, said no cure exists for primary progressive aphasia, although many patients benefit from speech therapy, support groups and devices to help them communicate. Some patients can maintain “a lot of strength and ability” for years after diagnosis, he said. But in some cases, as the underlying neurological damage worsens, patients develop swallowing and respiratory problems, he said, and the condition “can be life-threatening.”
Still, effective treatments may be on the horizon: “That’s why we do what we do,” he said, to seek helpful treatments and cures.
Pannell is optimistic that she can remain relatively healthy. In the meantime, she said, she is trying to “stand back and look at my accomplishments.”
“I’m doing that, and I feel good,” she said. “I think I’ve done my job.”
Pannell’s district covers a swath of poor and working-class neighborhoods in south Sacramento, some of which have struggled with crime and foreclosure. Pat Shelby, the president of the North Laguna Creek Neighborhood Association, said Pannell has helped buoy the district by guiding key projects to fruition. She cited the ongoing project to extend light rail to Cosumnes River College, new housing developments and the bustling library.
“She helped bring in things that met our needs but also did not exploit or develop throwaway projects,” Shelby said.
Pannell is particularly proud of the transformation of Phoenix Park, a housing complex once considered among the most dangerous in the region when it was called Franklin Villa. Pannell and city housing officials worked to redevelop the area after forcing absentee property owners out.
When she shops for groceries or stops to fill up her champagne-colored Mercedes, Pannell often gets hugs and handshakes from her constituents. “People can see that Meadowview has changed, and they thank me,” she said. “They take pride now in Meadowview, Parkway and North Laguna.”
“That’s what I will miss the most: seeing people getting joy in a project that we completed.”
Pannell grew up in Del Paso Heights, the oldest of eight children. She said she never aspired to a career in politics.
But she ran for the seat the year after her husband, Sam, died in December 1997. Pannell said she wanted someone in office who would carry on his values.
“I thought I would last maybe two years,” she said.
Pannell said she has always disliked speaking in public, and abhorred asking people for money. Running for office “was just horrible,” she said, and she never liked the friction inherent in molding public policy. She stayed, she said, because “there were so many needs, and I wanted to make a difference. And I did.”
She wants that legacy to continue. About two weeks ago, Pannell pulled out her BlackBerry and contacted Larry Carr, executive director of Florin Road Partnership, a south Sacramento business association.
“If I stepped down today, would you take my council seat?” she texted Carr.
“Are you serious?” he replied.
She was, and she said Monday she will work hard to get him elected to the seat that for so many years has been occupied by Pannells.
Carr said he is up for the challenge. He recalled that when Sam Pannell died, “it was a panic.”
“We all wanted to know who was going to take over for Sam. He was larger than life,” Carr said of the man whose name remains on Meadowview’s community center. “There was a concern that Bonnie wasn’t up to the challenges, but whoa, was she ever. She has worked as hard for that community as anyone.”
Councilman Darrell Fong sits next to Pannell on the council dais and has spoken on her behalf at recent events in south Sacramento. He said he worries about her departure.
“Will the community get lost in the political aftermath?” he said. “I’m concerned there will be a void. It concerns me, because it wasn’t about the politics with Bonnie; it was about serving the area.”
When Pannell ran for re-election in 2012, Mayor Johnson and some prominent area pastors supported her opponent, local NAACP chair Betty Williams, citing high crime in the area and a councilwoman they described as out of touch with her community’s needs. Pannell won by 213 votes after a grinding, sometimes personal campaign.
Asked Monday about her relationship with Johnson, Pannell shook her head and declined comment. She said she will leave the council with mostly fond memories of her public service. In recent weeks, she said, she has become wistful driving through her district.
“This was not what I planned for my life, but I’m so glad it happened to me,” she said. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.