Local Government and Politics, News

It’s registering for John O’Brien: His final race is being run

Southern Essex Register of Deeds John L. O'Brien Jr., of Lynn, took advice from his opponent about the registry website. (Jim Wilson)

SALEM — Nearly a week after easily winning his first contested election in 24 years, Southern Essex Register of Deeds John L. O’Brien Jr. is taking a tip from his opponent for improving Registry operations.

O’Brien said fellow Democrat Alice Merkl said, before last Tuesday’s primary election, the Registry website has not been updated with a translation button allowing the quick transformation of English-language instructions on the site into other languages.

“How did we miss that?” O’Brien said last Friday, adding Registry employees are taking steps to incorporate Merkl’s suggestion.

O’Brien, a 67-year-old Lynn native, staggered the political establishment in 1976 by defeating a Republican to become Register. He oversees a 34-employee office in Shetland Park, recording land transaction documents for 30 communities, ranging from Haverhill to Saugus.

After disclosing in 2016 a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy body dementia, O’Brien insisted he could perform his duties as register and announced that 2018 would be his last run for office.

Defeating Merkl of Salem 24,233 votes to 9,260, sets O’Brien on a course for the Nov. 6 final election where voters can choose between O’Brien and Republican Jonathan E. Ring of Rockport for a six-year term as register.

The race is framed against a backdrop of political upheaval in Massachusetts this year that has seen long-time Democrats toppled and others threatened with defeat. Ring describes himself as a lifelong North Shore resident active in Rockport civic affairs, including the Housing Authority.

“I spearheaded an initiative to publish our Housing Authority financials in the report … I believe that I have the right qualities and experience necessary to manage and lead the Registry,” he wrote in a June letter.

David Colpitts of Salem, a self-described historian, is running as an unenrolled candidate.

O’Brien said Southern Essex is the “best registry in the country.” He said he 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.

The Registry received a Computerworld Smithsonian Award in 1999.

The changing political climate and a contested race convinced O’Brien to leave nothing to chance in this election year. He dusted off campaigning skills honed as a former Lynn city councilor and mayoral candidate and went to work identifying voters and focusing on cities with contested primary races like Haverhill and Lynn.

“We sent targeted mail to 16 communities; we targeted new voters and I attended everything I was invited to attend. We will be out doing the same thing through November. If I am fortunate to win in November, this will be my last campaign. I’m not one of those politicians who says ‘I’m not running’ and then changes their mind,” he said.

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