SALEM — When it comes to politics, odds have never bothered John L. O’Brien Jr. Elected to the Lynn City Council as a teenager, he broke a political mold in 1976 when he ran as a Democrat and wrested the Southern Essex Register of Deeds job from a Republican.
But O’Brien, 66, has decided this fall will be his last campaign. He is running for another six-year term as register and for the first time in 24 years he has a September primary opponent, Democrat Alice Rose Merkl of Salem, as well as a November Republican opponent, Rockport resident Jonathan E. Ring.
“No one’s entitled to their job. You have to earn it every election. This is my last time out of the box,” the Lynn native said in an interview this week.
He runs a 34-employee office tucked in the back corner of Shetland Park. The registry’s big open floor plan office has the feel of a library, with tables set up for researchers to pore through computerized land transaction records or dig into rows and rows of record books for 30 communities from Saugus to Haverhill.
O’Brien has raised the registry’s profile beyond a public records office. He took big banks to task beginning eight years ago on what he characterized as their failure to record home mortgage assignments to other banks. He also pointed the finger at “robo signers,” who he said were fraudulently signing mortgage documents on behalf of banks.
After consulting with his wife, Sandra, and daughter, Ashley, O’Brien in 2016 publicly revealed he has Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy body dementia. He takes medication, no longer drives, and said he is capable and competent to serve as register.
“If I couldn’t do the job, I wouldn’t run,” he said.
Running for office or helping someone run for office is what O’Brien has done since the age of 8. He helped his father tack up campaign signs across Lynn and shouted into public address microphones in support of candidates.
“I never went to school on election day,” he said.
The late Pasquale A. Caggiano had O’Brien’s support in his failed 1969 bid for mayor of Lynn. Caggiano ran again for the seventh time and won the mayorship in 1971 and 19-year-old O’Brien, a Classical High School graduate, won the Ward 6 council seat following a topsy-turvy election that saw the city run out of ballots in the fall primary. O’Brien said the preliminary election do-over in November, 1971, gave him a leg-up against incumbent David J. Walsh.
“I bought 2,000 white carnations with ‘O’Brien Ward 6’ cards on them. My mother brought a vase of carnations into every polling place,” he said.
O’Brien represented his West Lynn neighbors in the council during a time marked by political tumult in Lynn. Councilors battled over rent control and a highway spur that would have run through Lynn Woods. Residents packed the Council Chamber to standing room-only capacity to listen to councilors’ arguments and weigh in with their own opinions.
The young councilor learned at the elbows of veteran politicians, including former Mayor Thomas P. Costin Jr., and bent elbows with fellow councilors, hoisting beers in the former Hotel Edison even though he was a year short of the 21-year-old drinking age. O’Brien ran and won reelection to Ward 6 three times.
The mid-1970s saw O’Brien and former long-time business partner and former First Assistant Register Michael T. Miles begin to carve out development opportunities in Lynn. O’Brien said he felt like a millionaire when he renovated and sold his first property near Lynn Common for a $1,700 profit.
The pair built 130 homes in developments, including the Village at Nells Pond where O’Brien and his family live today.
“We were able to bring out-of-town residents into Lynn,” he said.
The Registry of Deeds was a sleepy county operation when O’Brien won election as register in 1976 and set about reforming the office. He embraced automation and highlighted the registry’s historical resources, including what he described as Indian deeds dating back centuries.
“We were the first registry online for free 24 hours a day,” he said.
O’Brien and the registry’s list of awards include recognition by Banker & Tradesman, the Essex Bar Association, and in May, 1999, he received a Computerworld Smithsonian Award.
With 15 years as register under his belt in 1991, O’Brien dove back into Lynn politics, running for mayor in a race featuring then-Mayor Albert V. DiVirgilio and the late Patrick J. McManus, who was a city councilor at large.
O’Brien ran on a platform that included duplicating “test” schools like Boston Latin Academy in Lynn, but he admitted he underestimated McManus’ campaign. The loser in the 1991 preliminary race for mayor, O’Brien folded up his Lynn campaign and returned to his registry office in Salem.
“No one likes to lose, but I was back on the job the next day,” he said.
A self-described “older-style Democrat,” O’Brien said the fun and some of the heart of politics have diminished.
“People don’t help people the way they used to,” he said.
He said Lynn can again become the city of his youth through neighborhood improvement and committed elected officials.
“I remember walking downtown with all of its light. It was a good time,” he said.