Parties nominate candidates in hotly contested Wallingford probate race



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WALLINGFORD — The field of candidates for an open probate judge seat this fall has narrowed following recent party caucuses.

The Republican Town Committee nominated Patrick Birney during its caucus on Wednesday night over fellow Republican Steve Allinson. A third Republican seeking the nomination, Jerry Farrell Jr., stepped down from the race Wednesday morning he said to allow the party to more harmoniously decide on a nominee.

The Democrats unanimously nominated Nicole Barillaro, the sole candidate seeking the party’s nomination on Wednesday. An attorney at the Hamden law firm Gambardella, Cipriano, Gottlieb & Hathaway PC, Barillaro manages the company’s probate trusts and estates wing.

“I live and breathe probate court, I practice in front of judges every week and I really truly believe I would be the best possible person for this job,” she said.

Birney said the Republican caucus was one of the largest he’s seen in the 22 years he’s been participating in the RTC, estimating that over 200 people participated.

“The last time that there was a contested race for Wallingford probate judge was 30 years ago and I think that had something to do with it and I think that the other thing that had to do with it was there were two worthy candidates from the Republican party that were seeking the nomination,” he said.

A partner with the Hartford law firm Robinson+Cole, Birney has been involved in a diverse range of cases, including bankruptcies, commercial litigation and pro bono work assisting domestic violence survivors to obtain restraining orders. Many of the cases he’s handled have involved local clients, including contract negotiations for the Wallingford YMCA and individuals involved in residential real estate.

“I think my diverse practice has better equipped me … to handle the diverse issues that are going to be coming before the probate court. Because it's not just a court of wills and estates — it's a family court. You know, it's a court that does administer wills and trusts, but it's also a court that addresses a removal of a person's self governance and autonomy, deals with parental rights. It’s diverse and I think my diverse practice lends itself to the position,” he said.

Since the court regularly hears cases on sensitive issues such as involuntary commitments and childrens’ cases, he said it’s important that judges are empathetic.

“The one thing that I have learned over the last 24 years appearing before hundreds of judges is the importance of judicial empathy: understanding that the people who are before you are facing some of the most difficult times of their lives and are appearing in court likely the first time of their lives. I want to help those people get through those difficult times and I think my experiences have qualified me to do it,” he said.

Barillaro noted that the town has an especially robust probate court system, given the presence of numerous assisted living and retirement homes in town, which add to the workload of the court.

Her interest in probate law began while she was attending New York Law School, which she graduated from in 2013, and it’s been a goal of hers to serve as a judge since. She said that the key to being an effective probate judge is having compassion and understanding for the people that are before the court.

“I love helping people. Most of my clients come to me when they're at a very stressful and sometimes grief-stricken part of their life and I love being able to help,” she said.

Barillaro is a member of the Housing Code Board of Appeals and formerly was on the Board of Directors of the Women and Family Center in Meriden.

Birney is a member of the Board of Directors of G.R.O.W.E.R.S. Inc, which uses horticultural education as therapy and job training for individuals with intellectual disabilities. He also serves as vice chair of Wallingford’s Public Utilities Commission and prior to that has been a member of the town Planning and Zoning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals.

“The opportunity for me to blend, to integrate, my law practice with my community service is the reason why I threw my hat in the race three weeks ago and the reason why I think I'll be a good judge when elected,” he said.

Speaking Wednesday morning before the Republican caucus, Farrell said that since both Allinson and Birney were strong candidates and business at his law firm, Connecticut Liquor Law, has been strong, he felt it would be best to drop out of the race to reduce the likelihood of a drawn out primary process.

“It would be best if the two of them decided on one candidate,” he said. “ … I think Wallingford will be well served by either one of them.”

Allinson said he’s still not sure what he plans to do next in regards to the possibility of a primary challenge and thanked those who supported him in the caucus.

“Gathering together and fighting for a cause you believe in is a victory, no matter the outcome. I am proud to call each … one that supported me my friends and look forward to continuing to serve our beloved town,” Allinson said.

The RTC also endorsed Kerry Lentz to run for the 85th House District as a challenger to incumbent Mary Mushinsky. Lentz was not available for comment for this article.

Both Barillaro and Birney said that Judge Philip A Wright Jr., who has served as the local judge for 30 years, is well respected and will leave a strong legacy. Wright announced he will not be seeking re-election in April as he nears the mandatory retirement age for judges. Both candidates said that the probate judge is a nonpartisan position.

Barillaro announced her candidacy after Democrat Jaime Hine dropped out of the race to pursue a job opportunity.

"I am honored and humbled by the support that I have received over the last two months as a candidate for Judge of Probate.  However, I unexpectedly was presented with a professional opportunity last week that is too good to pass up.  As a husband and father, I have the obligation to do what is in my best interest and my family’s best interest,” he said in a message to DTC members.

The DTC also endorsed Mushinsky for another run for the 85th House District and Robert Avery for the town Registrar of Voters.

Reporter Devin Leith-Yessian can be reached at dleithyessian@record-journal.com.



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