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Opinion | Alan Wirzbicki

Candidates who want to do good as register of deeds

Stephen J. Murphy. Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File 2013

In a normal world, Paul Nutting would be a prime candidate for the job managing land records and deeds in Suffolk County. The Savin Hill resident has 20 years experience in mapping and records management, and a passion for the sort of details that many people find mind-numbing.

But in Massachusetts, that administrative job requires an unusual qualification: winning a county-wide election. Registers do not make policy, or even hire their own staffs, but the office remains an elected position.

That’s why Nutting — along with other well-qualified candidates Katherine V. Forde, Jeff Ross, and Stephanie Everett — faces an uphill battle Sept. 8, when they’re all running in a crowded Democratic primary against former Boston city councilor Stephen J. Murphy.

Murphy, who lost his last race for reelection in 2015, has both name recognition and the biggest bank account. What he lacks is even a feigned enthusiasm for the job itself. Murphy’s erratic attendance at council meetings played a role in his loss last year. Now, picking up where he left off, Murphy has dodged multiple candidate forums, including last week’s event at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. It’s not an auspicious sign of how he’d handle the office, where it’s not unknown for some registers to work less than 9-to-5 hours.

If Murphy wins the primary anyway, and defeats the three independent candidates on the ballot in November, there’s little direct harm that he can do as he collects his $124,000-a-year paycheck. The secretary of state’s office calls most of the shots in the register’s office and can step in to solve problems if anything goes seriously awry.

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But Bill Galvin, the secretary of state, says it still matters who wins the election. Registers of deeds may not be able to do a lot of harm, but they can do some good. The job is whatever the register makes of it, and a register with a reform agenda could nudge the office to deliver better services.

To Stephanie Everett, it’s an opportunity to help homeowners, especially those facing foreclosure or in vulnerable financial situations. Every property transaction in the city goes through the registry, and she wants to enlist the registry’s staff as lookouts for real estate scams.

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“People without attorneys need to know what steps they can take,” Everett says.

Forde, a paralegal and first-time candidate, says she wants to spur “much-needed consumer-oriented improvement” at the registry through extended hours and other reforms, which she connects to a broader progressive agenda of rebuilding confidence in government.

“I believe in government that is functional. Often when people have bad experiences, it’s through offices like this,” she says.

Ross, a real estate lawyer, promises to make the registry’s materials available in more languages. He also wants to standardize record-keeping across the state’s other registries.

Nutting works for a state mapping agency, and wants to focus on upgrading the register’s woeful technology. He imagines coordinating all the scattered mapping databases in the city, making it easier for residents to look up data about their property and neighborhoods.

“I’ve been managing land records my entire life,” he said. “I’ve always thought that if I was ever to run for any office it would be register of deeds, mainly because record management is a science in and of itself.”

For residents to benefit from what any of those candidates have to offer, though, support has to coalesce around one of the candidates opposing Murphy. To the extent that voters are paying attention to the register’s race at all, the top four candidates all seem to be drawing support from each other. (Perennial candidate Doug Bennett and former city hall official Michael Mackan will also appear on the ballot.)

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The register is, for all practical purposes, the head of a regional office of a state agency. If it were a normal appointed position, and experience and qualifications mattered most, it’s almost unimaginable that someone like Murphy would even get an interview. But will Democratic primary voters hold candidates to the same standard this year? Nutting, Forde, Ross, and Everett are hoping so — and each is looking for a way to break ahead of the rest of the field.


Alan Wirzbicki is a Globe editorial writer. He can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.