There are 124,000 reasons a person would enter the race for Suffolk County register of deeds, but is there one reason voters should care who wins?
On Thursday Sept. 8 — yes, a Thursday — county residents will take the first steps in selecting the new register of deeds after Francis “Mickey” Roache, a former Boston police commissioner, resigned from the largely administrative post at the end of 2015.
What’s clear: Dismally low voter turnout is expected, which favors candidates with high name recognition, such as former Boston city councilor Stephen J. Murphy. What’s also clear: Whoever wins the election will net a $124,000 annual paycheck with a questionable amount of responsibility.
The register of deeds, according to its website, is charged with “maintaining a permanent public record of all properly drawn legal documents submitted by the public relative to real estate” — a task that’s almost completely digitized and handled by subordinates.
Still, the head of the 28-person department makes about $25,000 more than the newly increased pay for a Boston city councilor.
The candidates for register of deeds, seven of whom are on the primary ballot, are largely promising minor changes to the registry, including modernizing its website and improving constituent services.
Joseph M. Donnelly Jr., an independent candidate and longtime real estate broker, was strikingly frank about why he wanted the post, when asked at a forum late last month.
“For over 40 years I’ve been earning a living on commission sales,” Donnelly told an audience at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. “It would be nice to get a regular check.”
Other candidates, including Dorchester activist and mapping expert Paul Nutting Jr., lawyer Stephanie Everett, paralegal Katherine V. Forde, and former candidate for Boston City Council Jeff Ross, offered other reasons for seeking the position.
Forde, who has referred to Murphy as a candidate “campaigning on name recognition” and “an opportunist who is running for a paycheck and the pension,” said, if elected, she would focus on incremental improvements such as changing the office’s recording hours and connecting homeowners with real estate attorneys.
Ross said he’d bring decades of expertise as a real estate lawyer to the post, and improve inefficiencies that burden residents and restrict information.
“I just think that voters are ready for change and they’re ready for new leadership,” Ross said. “This is a job where people’s property rights are at stake. And every time I head out into the field, there’s someone who needs help.”
At the forum in Roxbury, Nutting said, if elected, he would use his experience in mapping to centralize real estate data and make it more publicly accessible. Everett, who rose from homelessness to become a lawyer and a policy aide for state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, said her background makes her better suited to manage home records.
“It’ll make me work harder,” Everett said in a recent phone interview. “Your home is your security blanket. You want to have someone in that office that can speak to someone who is facing foreclosure, and make sure services are available to send them to the right person.”
But what about Murphy?
His name and status loom over the race, though he has yet to attend any candidate forums. In an interview, Murphy said he did not intend to snub his opponents, but had “time constraints” due to other campaign activities.
Instead of publicly debating, Murphy said, he was talking to voters throughout Suffolk County, doing “house parties, visibilities, standouts, and neighborhood events.”
Murphy, the former president of the Boston City Council who lost his at-large seat last year, said he was “confident” he’d prevail in the primary.
Still, Murphy has given few clues as to what a registry under his leadership would look like, or more specifically, if it would function any differently than under Roache or Thomas M. Ryan, the interim register after Roache’s resignation.
To prospective voters, Murphy is highlighting his “public management” experience at the council, which he said makes him best qualified to run the registry and its $1.8 million budget.
Also, Murphy worked as a registry clerk for a short period in the 1990s, he said.
“There’s a very talented staff in place, and they don’t need someone to come in to tell them how to do their jobs,” Murphy said. “I have management through the Boston City Council, where I focused daily on constituent services. I believe that’s a place [the registry of deeds] can improve.”
In this week’s primary election, unusually scheduled for a Thursday because of complications stemming from Labor Day, Murphy will vie for the Democratic nomination against six candidates, including Forde, Everett, Ross, and Nutting. Also on the ballot will be two perennial campaigners for elected positions in greater Boston: Michael Mackan and Douglas Bennett.
The winner of that primary will be the overwhelming favorite to defeat three nonparty-affiliated candidates in November, which are Donnelly, the longtime broker; Margherita Ciampa-Coyne, who ran for Boston City Council in 2013; and John Keith, a real estate broker who said he feels the office needs new leadership.
At the forum in Roxbury, Keith highlighted a series of Boston Globe stories on alleged real estate fraud in Roxbury as an example of how the deeds’ office needs to better protect needy residents.
Keith also said he did not feel that the register’s office needed to be an elected position, but said he is running nevertheless because he felt elected officials are unlikely to change the state’s rules.
“It’s going to take six years at least to make this not an elected position,” Keith said, listing the host of state and local officials who would have to sign off on the change. “If I’m the last elected register, I’d be perfectly happy with that.”
This year, William F. Galvin, the secretary of state, declined to exercise his right to unilaterally appoint a new Suffolk County register of deeds and bypass the upcoming election.
Before formally entering the race, Murphy made “several efforts” to get Galvin to appoint him to the position, but was denied, the secretary has said.
It is now up to voters, though likely small in number, to decide the fate of Murphy and the other candidates vying for the post.Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the timing of the primary election. It’s this Thursday, Sept. 8.