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    Usually low-key, Suffolk register of deeds race has turned into a contentious clash

    Incument Suffolk Register of Deeds Stephen Murphy says he’s best for the position because he understands “customer, or constituent, service.”
    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
    Incument Suffolk Register of Deeds Stephen Murphy says he’s best for the position because he understands “customer, or constituent, service.”

    “I don’t think she understands or appreciates the role,” declared the incumbent, Stephen Murphy.

    “He looks at this like a retirement plan,” asserted his challenger, Katie Forde.

    This rhetoric isn’t getting thrown in a closely contested congressional primary, or a feisty face-off for the secretary of state nomination. No, it’s coming from bitter rivals in the fiercely fought battle for — wait for it — Suffolk County register of deeds.

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    Murphy, a veteran political figure in Boston, is trying to fend off a spirited challenge from Forde, a family law paralegal. She wants to end the streak of former city councilors taking over the position — and its comfortable $142,000-a-year salary.

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    The Registry of Deeds maintains all real estate records in the county. The register, who isn’t exactly a household name, manages an office of about 35 employees who oversee deeds, mortgages, and liens.

    Despite the relatively low profile of the position, things have gotten contentious between the two candidates in advance of this week’s Democratic primary. They first faced off in 2016 after longtime register Francis “Mickey” Roache, a former Boston police commissioner and councilor, abruptly announced his retirement and sparked a seven-way primary race to replace him. Murphy edged out Forde by a 5 percent margin.

    Forde thinks Murphy doesn’t really care about the position and just wants to fluff up his pension: “I don’t think this position should be his landing pad,” she said.

    Murphy thinks Forde would irresponsibly expand the scope of the job and doesn’t have the public management experience that he does: “She’s on her own course,” he said.

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    Forde said she would expand the profile of the office by launching consumer protection programs for homeowners and sharing real estate data with other divisions of government to combat the affordable housing shortage.

    “Boring stuff,” she acknowledged. “But good government’s not supposed to be exciting. It’s supposed to be practical.”

    To meet some of her goals, the Legislature would have to change the statute that governs the role of the register — a challenge Forde embraces. “This office can and should be doing a lot more,” she said.

    Murphy said the registry works quite well as-is, and cited developments he has made within the scope of the current statutes: He hired the first Spanish-speaking and Mandarin-speaking employees to bolster customer service, gave the main registry website an update, and posted affordable housing tips and resources.

    “I know the registry, and I know the duties and the authorities of the office,” Murphy said.

    Katie Forde (right) lost to Murphy by 5 points in 2016.
    Barry Chin/Globe Staff
    Katie Forde (right) lost to Murphy by 5 points in 2016.
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    Murphy, who has launched several unsuccessful campaigns for various positions over the years, lost his seat on the Boston City Council in 2015 after serving 18 years as an at-large city councilor, including several years as council president.

    Forde called the register position a “velvet coffin” for Murphy, alluding to the knack that former city councilors seem to have for finding their way into high-paying county jobs.

    He said he doesn’t “pay any attention” to that criticism and noted his track record in public management.

    Since taking on the new role, Murphy has taken the registry on the road, making visits to neighborhoods across Suffolk County to meet residents and assist them with real estate services.

    At the Rossetti-Cowan Senior Center in Revere a week before the primary, which Murphy said was the 78th neighborhood visit of his tenure, he and his staff answered questions about the seniors’ mortgage discharges and how they could record a homestead on their property.

    The details were a bit dry, but Murphy said he recognizes how important people’s homes are to their identity.

    “My choice was to help people,” Murphy said. “I understand customer, or constituent, service.”

    Later that day, Forde introduced herself to voters at an event hosted by the Charlestown Democratic Ward Committee. She cited her most high-profile endorsement — from Attorney General Maura Healey — as her first talking point.

    “Last office on the ballot,” Forde told voters, in a nod to the job’s obscurity. “Start from the bottom and go up to the top.”

    Forde, who lives in West Roxbury, said she’s most worried about people “under-voting” — choosing candidates for the high-profile positions on the ballot but neglecting the more unknown ones.

    But both candidates said they look forward to a high turnout thanks to the competitive Democratic primary races for governor, district attorney, and US representative in District 7.

    “I feel very good about it,” Forde said, pointing out that her campaign’s $60,000 budget is three times what it was two years ago.

    Murphy, a Hyde Park resident, said he has raised about $100,000 for his reelection bid.

    “I’ve been out working hard and making my case for why I deserve a six-year term,” he said. “I think it’s going OK.”

    J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jdcapelouto.