Suffolk County voters might be excused if they paid little notice to past elections for the register of probate and family court. But with incumbent Patricia Campatelli suspended since January over allegations of punching a subordinate following a holiday party, no fewer than five challengers are clamoring for attention in the lead-up to the Democratic primary.
Each has pledged to restore stability to the office — which oversees wills, adoptions, divorces, and child custody cases — but first they have to explain those duties to voters.
“People already know who I am; they don’t know what the office is,” said Martin J. Keogh, a candidate who ran unsuccessfully last year for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council.
Campatelli, who previously worked in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and state Office of Community Corrections, was elected in 2012. She has not performed the duties of her office for six months, however, and in March, a court-appointed investigator concluded that she often worked no more than 15 hours a week and spent time taking “numerous smoking breaks, scratching lottery tickets, looking at East Boston real estate on the Internet, and filling out puzzles,” according to a report obtained by the Globe.
The state’s highest court upheld Campatelli’s suspension last month, denying her claim that administrative judges lacked the statutory authority to suspend her. Though still suspended, she is seeking reelection for a six-year term, in which she would be paid $134,691 a year after a pay bump this month. The Democratic primary is the key election in the race, since no Republicans are running.
Campatelli initially agreed to meet with a reporter for this report but then did not respond to repeated phone messages.
Dorchester resident and lawyer David T. Keenan said he was drawn to the race by the disorder in the office under Campatelli.
“I’ve never run for elected position, other than for my ward committee,” Keenan said, “but after seeing the problems that have been created by our current register, I thought it was necessary that we brought new blood and new leadership into this.”
Keenan, 57, pledged to make the office more accessible to non-English speakers, update its computer system, reach out to county residents, and attract attorneys and law students to assist those unable to afford counsel — changes that Keogh, the other lawyer in the race, also pledged.
Keogh, who worked under former Boston city councilors Maura Hennigan and Peggy Davis-Mullen, said that he observed disorder in the register’s office as a probate attorney and decided to get into the race within two months after his November loss.
“The tough decision was, do I want to do another campaign again, right in a row?” said Keogh, 48. “I said yeah, because that office needs reformation. That office needs to be more efficient. That office needs to be professional.”
Keough’s familiarity to voters may be outmatched by former Boston School Committee member and city councilor Felix D. Arroyo, father of Felix G. Arroyo, also a former councilor and a 2013 mayoral candidate, now serving as the city’s chief of Health and Human Services.
A native of Puerto Rico who came to Boston in 1976, the elder Arroyo, 66, said he has tried to retire, but felt drawn back to public service while campaigning for his son last year.
“People said, ‘We’re glad to have you back,’ ” he recalled. “When you go away, you realize what home is.”
Arroyo said his administrative experience qualifies him for the office and that Keenan’s and Keogh’s legal backgrounds don’t give them an edge. “A doctor is not necessarily the best person to run a hospital,” he said.
First-time candidate John Sepulveda highlights his experience as a former community organizer, small business owner, and activist in East Boston’s Colombian immigrant community.
“I’ve been . . . in other state agencies as a kid; as a high school student I went helping people — family, friends — as an interpreter because they didn’t speak the language and I did,” said Sepulveda, 42.
The father of two says the office should not be a steppingstone or sinecure for career politicians. He is eager to get to work, he said, and has launched a website sharing information about the office — and about his campaign.
Sepulveda expressed shock that the office lacked “a simple website with information, for people to download a form so they know what the form looks like before they go into the office. I found that appalling that that didn’t exist.”
The race’s least known candidate may be South Boston native Richard J. Joyce, who sees himself not as a politician but as an applicant for a promotion.
A probation officer since 1982, Joyce said that rather than sweeping changes, he hopes to bring stability and incremental improvements to the office, with input from experienced staff.
“A lot in the courts is the morale, especially the leadership,” he said. “You can’t go into a job, being a supervisor [and say], ‘You do this; you do that.’ People have been there a long time, and they really know their job.”
“This case is kind of unique,” he added, “whereas it’s been unstable for the past three years.”