It was a blunder with career-ending potential. But for Glendale Court Commissioner Daniel F. Calabro, the use of a racial epithet from the bench and the resulting abortive effort by the Los Angeles district attorney to bar him from hearing criminal matters appears, ironically, to have worked in his favor.
The controversial incident propelled the relatively unknown commissioner into the statewide political spotlight and gained him a powerful tie with a politician who wields great influence within Los Angeles' black community.
It has also evidently advanced his dormant effort to become a judge.
And that has concerned some who think that the accusations of racism masked Calabro's real problem of judicial insensitivity.
"I've known Danny--there's no way he's a racist at all," said one person familiar with the case who requested anonymity. "But he tends to be demeaning, rude and insensitive to everyone--regardless of race and creed."
Calabro used the epithet during a June hearing involving a white Glendale man who assaulted a black Burbank man and called him "nigger."
Court transcripts quote Calabro asking: "Another nigger case? Another one where this nigger business came up? We're not past all that yet? I thought we were past all that."
In the weeks following the condemnation of Calabro by Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, the 54-year-old commissioner gained an endorsement for a judgeship from one county supervisor and won career-saving vindication from the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., which concluded after an investigation that his use of the word "nigger" from the bench was not racist.
At the same time, his supporters--some of whom he'd never met--immediately buoyed Calabro with a barrage of compliments, vouching for his integrity while expressing outrage at Reiner, whom they portrayed as a modern-day Goliath pounding Calabro for political gain.
A petition signed by Calabro's supportive colleagues in the Glendale Municipal Court described him as a "respectful, careful and very hard-working individual." Reiner's accusation was labeled "ludicrous."
In the midst of the controversy, Gov. George Deukmejian added Calabro's name to a list of possible candidates for a vacant judgeship on the Glendale Municipal Court. Some believe the compliments and extensive media attention surrounding the episode led Deukmejian to consider elevating Calabro for the first time since Calabro submitted his application to the governor five years ago. Interest in Calabro was underscored when the governor's office sought opinions from attorneys and judges on his competence to serve on the bench.
New 'Name Recognition'
"There isn't a judge in Glendale who's had the name recognition . . . as Daniel Calabro--it's incredible," said another person who has watched the case and also requested anonymity. "Obviously, his political contacts have increased significantly as a result of this."
"I think he sort of emerges fairly strong from this thing politically," said another observer of the case, primarily because of the name recognition. "He had some very credible community figures . . . come to know him, and he spent time talking with the community, being interviewed by various bar associations . . . and they seem to know him a lot better than they did before."
Dan Wolf, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, agreed.
"Certainly, at the very least, this whole thing made one supervisor aware of him," Wolf said. "Kenny certainly wouldn't have known him had this whole thing not come up, and he was impressed enough after one meeting to recommend him to the governor."
In an Oct. 22 letter to Deukmejian, Hahn, who has long represented the largely minority 2nd District, enthusiastically supported Calabro.
"Commissioner Calabro is a man of courage and is versed in the law," Hahn wrote. "He has a reputation for excellent judicial temperament. . . . I only met him once, but I was very much impressed with his character and his personality. I think all the citizens of California would be glad if you would consider him for a judicial appointment."
However, such characterizations have concerned some who have worked with Calabro during his 6 1/2 years as commissioner and who believe that he is not qualified to serve as a judge.
Speaking on the condition that their names and job titles not be revealed, attorneys and others familiar with the case discussed their opinions of Calabro.
Each agreed that Calabro is not a racist, but said that he often unnecessarily belittles people in his court and continues to exhibit insensitivity toward defendants and court staff, even after promising publicly to show greater sensitivity.
"He's condescending to everybody except attorneys, and I don't know of anybody who likes to work for him," said one person who knows Calabro.