LOWELL — Shortly after winning reelection earlier this month, Mayor Sokhary Chau began laying out a political path that he hopes will make him the next Middlesex County register of deeds, but it just as easily might land him in the hot seat.
On Nov. 12, Chau released a statement about his intention to enter the race, following the announcement from longtime Register Richard Howe Jr. last month that he will not seek reelection in 2024, having served in the role since 1995. He replaced Ed Early who served in the position for three terms until his retirement.
In a text to his fellow councilors, obtained by The Sun, Chau said his background in the mortgage industry and the legal and real estate fields made him a good candidate for the position.
“I want you to hear from me personally that I’m throwing my hat in the ring to run for Middlesex North Registry of Deeds,” Chau wrote. “Dick Howe has done an amazing job using technology to advance and improve the operations of the office.”
He said that he would “continue to build upon his good work of improving customer service and promoting the Registry of Deeds.”
Chau echoed many of these same sentiments in a press release provided to The Sun later on the same day.
Karen Cassella, who campaigned against Howe in the 2018 race, also recently announced her candidacy. She currently works in the office, which is located in the Lowell Justice Center renamed in honor of the late Judge Cornelius Kiernan. If elected, Cassella would be the first woman to serve as the Middlesex County register of deeds.
“I have made the decision to run because I believe I have the knowledge and ability to identify and implement needed changes that will help the functionality of the office,” Cassella said by email on Monday. “I have been part of the Registry of Deeds for thirty-two years, having performed all aspects of the job which has given me extensive knowledge and experience of operations throughout all departments which I feel is critical to the role.”
In closing his message to his colleagues, Chau said, “As we enter our new term in January, I also want to assure you I will be fulfilling my duty to represent District 6 on the Council for my full term.”
Serving two political masters simultaneously has been done before, when then-Mayor Ed Kennedy won his state Senate race, and served out the two years of his concurrent win to the City Council. And when Steve Panagiotakos was first elected state representative, he served out his term on the School Committee.
“From a state ethics perspective, as someone elected to the Legislature could serve simultaneously as a city councilor, I think the caveat would be that you can only get one salary,” Howe said by phone on Monday.
But there’s no precedent for an elected official to a quasi-judicial position like the Registry to also hold a municipal-level seat, said Howe.
“I don’t know if anyone can give you a clear answer because there’s so few register of deeds positions,” he said. “The person in this position has to make judgments on what documents can and cannot be recorded. I can’t answer definitely one way or the other. I think it’s sort of an open question.”
Under a Plan E form of government, if Chau were to either yield his council seat or be ruled to have to yield it, Justin Ford, his challenger in the District 6 race, would be appointed to the council.
“If a vacancy occurs on the council, it’s the second-place finisher that ascends to the office,” Howe said, pointing to School Committee member Susie Chhoun, who finished second in the 2021 race against Andy Descoteaux for District 3. When Descoteaux resigned his seat in 2022, Chhoun was appointed.
Not so fast, Director of Elections Greg Pappas said by phone on Monday, countering that a special election would need to be held.
“That works for at-large, that doesn’t really work for districts — it’s not supposed to work that way,” Pappas said. “… In the case of a councilor district, usually, if it’s in the first year, they do a special election within 90 days. If it’s the second year, they just leave it vacant until the end of the year because people who voted didn’t vote for that second person.”
Ultimately whether Chau is allowed to hold two seats simultaneously may be decided by his potential boss, Secretary of State William Galvin.
“They come in under the secretary of the commonwealth,” Pappas said. “They answer to Galvin budget-wise and otherwise. Even though they’re elected, they come under the Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin.”
Challenger Ford bristled at the idea that the newly reelected Chau would not only divide his attentions between campaigning for a state-level position, but if elected would also keep his council seat.
“It was an honor to run for city council and uplift the voices of my community, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to hear the concerns of District 6,” he said by text on Monday. “That is why I was concerned when I read the news of Sokhary Chau’s intent to run for ‘Middlesex Register of Deeds’ in 2024. District 6 deserves a fully committed council member. Running a campaign for the register of deeds will take time and energy that should be invested in addressing the concerns of District 6 constituents. So for someone to seek a new political office before being sworn into the office you were just elected to, isn’t fair to the residents who elected you.”
Chau is churning the political waters in other areas. Last week, he released a statement in support of fellow Councilor Danny Rourke to take the gavel as Lowell’s mayor in January. Rourke cruised to an unopposed reelection victory last Tuesday.
“As we look forward, and plan for the next Council term, we also recognize the importance of selecting a potential new Mayor,” Chau wrote. “I have decided to put my support behind Councilor Dan Rourke for Mayor. This is an important decision for the Council and the City. I believe Councilor Dan Rourke believes in the same main principles as I do: to work with everyone in the City, to unite the community and not to be divisive, and to cast wide resident support from all levels and neighborhoods in our community.”
The mayor of Lowell, who is elected by and from the City Council members, also sits as chair of the School Committee. It only takes a simple majority vote of the council to elect the mayor, and Rourke already reportedly has six votes, but there’s a lot of time for horse-trading between now and January.