Health question hovers over Registry of Deeds race

JAIME CAMPOS/Staff file photoDemocratic incumbent John O'Brien, left, and Republican Jonathan Ring at a debate earlier this month among candidates for Southern Essex register of deeds at Salem Waterfront Hotel in Salem. 

SALEM — It was the spring of 2015 when John O'Brien's daughter told him that his hands were shaking. He also noticed that he had become more forgetful.

A series of tests revealed that O'Brien had Lewy body dementia with Parkinson's symptoms, a progressive brain disease that affects memory and movement.

O'Brien, the longtime Southern Essex register of deeds, went public with his diagnosis a year later. Now, his condition is back in the news as he seeks re-election to another six-year term in office on Nov. 6.

O'Brien, 67, said he wants to keep working to show that people with Lewy body dementia can continue to live full lives.

"I'm trying to tell people that if you have an illness you can still function," he said.

O'Brien, a Democrat from Lynn who has been in office since 1976, has said his illness should not be an issue in the campaign. His two opponents, Republican Jonathan Ring of Rockport and Independent David Colpitts of Salem, said they have not made O'Brien's health a major issue. But Ring said voters have raised the question on the campaign trail.

"This is a sensitive subject for everybody, but he is running for re-election to head a $2.8 million agency and oversee 34 employees," Ring said. "That's a lot of responsibility and it's a question people have. 'If you have this diagnosis we feel for you. Why are you running for re-election?'"

Colpitts called running for re-election a "personal decision" on the part of O'Brien.

"I believe that only the candidate can decide how he feels and if he continues," Colpitts said. "It's a six-year term, so how is that candidate going to feel in two years, three years, four years? Only time will tell."

O'Brien's health did not come up in a debate with Ring in Salem earlier this month. But it did become an issue when O'Brien criticized Ring for not denouncing a headline in the monthly newspaper Boston Broadside in a story about Ring's candidacy. The headline referred to O'Brien as a "Dementia-Diagnosed Democrat."

"I am sure you played no part in writing the headline, but the fact that it was associated with your announcement should be of great concern to you," O'Brien wrote in a letter to Ring.

Ring responded with a letter saying he was offended by the headline and wanted to let the public know that "just because my opponent has been diagnosed with this disease, it should in no way be an issue in this campaign."

But when O'Brien criticized Ring in a televised debate in Lynn for failing to denounce the headline sooner, Ring countered with a letter accusing O'Brien of attacking the media's "right to free speech."

When asked in an interview on Beverly Community Access Media if he would say it's time for O'Brien to retire due to his health, Ring responded, "I would."

Ring now says that's not what he meant. "I can understand the misunderstanding, but it's never been my campaign platform or viewpoint that he should retire (because of his health)," Ring said.

In an interview in his office at Shetland Park in Salem, O'Brien said if people have questions about his ability to perform his duties, they are welcome to call him and spend a day with him. He said family and friends would let him know if he were no longer capable of doing the job.

"I'm a big boy. I understand there's no cure for this," he said. "Everything so far is fine. I'm functioning on all eight cylinders every day."

The Southern Essex Registry of Deeds oversees land records for 30 communities in the area. It has 34 employees, a budget of $2.85 million, and revenues of $36 million.

Lewy body dementia has an average duration of five to seven years, according to the Lewy Body Dementia Association, although the range could be anywhere from two to 20 years depending on a person's overall health, age and severity of symptoms.

O'Brien said he is taking medication for the disease. He can no longer drive. His said his legs and arms get stiff, and his stamina is not what it used to be. 

"It's not so much the dementia," he said. "I haven't had any bouts of really forgetting things. The problems I have are more so with the Parkinson's."

O'Brien, who makes $138,519, said he has maxed out on his pension but is not ready to retire. He was elected to the Lynn City Council at age 19 and became register of deeds six years later.

"It would've been easy for me to have retired," he said. "But I don't play golf. My life has been politics since I was 19, and I've been in this job since I was 25. I like it and it keeps me going."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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