Jeanette Britt told the candidate knocking on her door that she had been tricked.
A man came to her house a few years ago selling life insurance, and she had bought it, assuming that it was a permanent plan that could be cashed out if she were ever in financial trouble.
She later learned that the policy was for term life insurance, which has no cash value and only pays a beneficiary if the owner dies within a specific period of time.
She told this story to Clifton Graves on Saturday when Graves knocked on her door seeking her vote this coming Tuesday in the election for a new probate judge. Graves, a Democrat, is running against Republican Melissa Papantones. (Click here to read a previous story detailing the issues in the race and the two candidates’ biographies, and to watch or listen to a joint radio appearance they made. Or click on the Facebook Live video at the bottom of this story.)
Frustrated and aching from her chemotherapy treatment, Britt asked Graves if he could help her.
“Let me see what I can do,” he said. Graves pulled out a pen and paper and wrote down his name and phone number on top of a thick stack of campaign literature. He promised to call her next week, and to put her in touch with a lawyer who may be able to help.
Britt went back into her house with a smile. “I’m definitely voting for you on Tuesday,” she said. “I can tell you’re a good person just by the way you talk.
That brief, informal interaction happened in the Monterey Place public housing development on Foote Street as Graves did some final door knocking and campaigning.
The interaction showed one of the challenges Graves and Papantones face: Explaining to voters what a probate judge does, let alone the fact that in New Haven we elect probate judges (but no other judges).
For 32 years, no one has paid much attention to elections for probate judge. Jack Keyes has held the job all the time, earning widespread acclaim and drawing no opposition. Now Keyes is retiring. Hence Tuesday’s election — and hence the need for a once-in-a-generation civics lesson.
Probate judges handle estates and contested wills, make decisions about child custody and adoption, intervene on behalf of ripped-off seniors who can’t competently handle their finances, and rule on involuntary committing people to hospitals.
They don’t handle consumer fraud cases like the one Britt described to Graves.
Papantones said that she has found that younger voters especially don’t know what a probate judge does.
At one recent stop, she encountered a group of University of New Haven students who seemed confused.
“They were totally uncertain of what a probate judge does and how it relates to them,” Papantones said. “I said to them, “‘If your roommate’s suicidal and has to go to a psychiatric hospital, that’s something a probate judge gets involved in.’
The students looked at each other. Papantones noted how at finals time the stress can lead to some students needing hospitalization.
“It’s not just your grandmother that has these problems sometimes,” she told the students. “If someone’s having a breakdown, unfortunately as college students that’s when you’re going to see the probate court.”
At a door in Westville, on the other hand, Papantones encountered an older woman who knew all about probate court. Her husband died last year. She has been dealing with his estate.
The woman told Papantones about how much Judge Keyes has helped her. She spoke about his open-door policy — she would pop in and speak to him whenever she had a concern. And she ended up talking with Papantones for 20 minutes,, asking at the end for a bunch of palm cards.
On Saturday afternoon, in between attending the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Dixwell Q House and then heading over to a mayoral campaign event in East Rock at 2 p.m., Graves walked along Foote Street dropping off campaign literature and promoting his candidacy to the few people who opened their doors and to the many people who saw and recognized him while walking on the street.
After the Q House event ended, Graves dropped by his campaign headquarters at 192 Dixwell Ave., where campaign manager Rey Harp filled him up with some doorknockers and campaign lit.
Marquel Rogers, a 22-year-old student at Gateway Community College, saw Graves holding campaign flyers and asked him what he was running for.
“If a parent can’t take care of a child anymore because of substance or mental illness,” he said, “and the grandparent has to come in and take over, which happens a lot, a grandparent will come before court and say: ‘I want guardianship,’ meaning legal custody over my grandchild. That’s to make sure that he she goes to school and is taken care of until his or her parents get it together. The probate court handles that.” He said that the same is true for when people want to become foster parents, or conservators for physically infirm relatives.
“The probate court deals with all types of issues,” he said, “from children all the way to the elderly and the disabled, and wills and trusts. The probate court impacts all people’s lives, in Dixwell, Newhallville, East Shore, East Rock, Westville. No matter what race or ethnicity, these issues impact our folks every day. That’s why the probate court judge is so important.”
Paul Bass contributed reporting.