The Senate Rules Committee reversed itself Monday and agreed to allow the full Senate to vote on the confirmation of state Motor Vehicles Director Adelbert A. Pierce, who drew opposition for once allegedly suggesting that gays be shot with a machine gun.
Pierce, a 20-year veteran of state government, previously denied repeatedly under oath that he ever made such a comment, contradicting the sworn testimony of other witnesses who attended a 1983 conference of state officials where the controversial remark was said to have been made.
According to some witnesses, Pierce, in an apparent attempt at jest, suggested to other officials at a discussion of legislation to prohibit employment discrimination against homosexuals, "Just give a me a submachine gun and I'll take care of the problem."
The committee held three hearings on Gov. George Deukmejian's nomination of Pierce, and on Monday it agreed by a vote of 3 to 1 to refer the matter to the full Senate, but without the usual recommendation that it be approved. The Senate postponed a vote until Friday, the last day Pierce can hold the $78,206-a-year post without Senate approval.
Under state law, a gubernatorial nominee can serve for one year without Senate confirmation and must leave if the the Senate fails to approve the nomination within that time.
Amid contradictory testimony last week, the Rules Committee rejected Pierce, with the committee's two Republicans voting "aye" and the three Democrats abstaining.
On Monday, however, the committee voted 3 to 1 to release its hold on the confirmation. Democratic Sens. Nicholas Petris of Oakland and Henry Mello of Watsonville joined Republican Sen. John Doolittle of Citrus Heights to send the issue to the full Senate, while President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) voted "no." Republican Sen. William Craven of Oceanside was absent.
A committee source, who asked not to be identified, credited the switch of Mello and Petris to "men who have soft hearts and who really don't want to hurt anybody." The Democratic source, who closely reads votes in advance, forecast that Pierce would win confirmation on Friday.
A key witness, Betty Reader, a former deputy director of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, who couldn't be found to testify last week, appeared before the committee under subpoena Monday and said she heard Pierce make the machine-gun comment.
Reader, now a real estate broker who insisted she did not try to dodge the committee's subpoena last week, said under oath that Pierce made the remark as "an off-hand comment that was inappropriate. It was not made in malice and was not reflective of the policy decisions the agency or Mr. Pierce made."
Pierce drew opposition from Leonard Matlovich of San Francisco, a former Air Force sergeant who received national attention in 1975 when the military forced him out because he was gay. A 12-year veteran of the Air Force with three tours of duty in Vietnam, he had challenged armed forces rules that bar homosexuals.
Wearing an American Legion cap, Matlovich, now a car salesman, testified that "we in the gay and lesbian community now are the butt of jokes today" that in the past were applied to blacks, Latinos and other minority group members. He asserted that such humor has no business being expressed by a top-level public official.
"When you make an off-the-cuff statement, you lose all the trust the public has in you," Matlovich told the committee.
Another witness, Diana Sanchez Harwood, national president of the American GI Forum, a Latino organization, said that although she had no direct knowledge of the alleged remark, she believed it was made and "showed poor judgment" on Pierce's part.