Election 2022: Register of Deeds

Headshots of Scott Crammond and Nick McBride

Election 2022: Register of Deeds

A Republican incumbent with a long history in the office faces a young Democratic challenger with an interest in history.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 11, 2022

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Headshots of Scott Crammond and Nick McBride

Democrat Scott Crammond, left, is running against Republican incumbent Nick McBride.

Register of Deeds is one of the most self-descriptive elected offices in Knox County.

The rare race in which the challenger says the incumbent is 'doing a good job.'

While your average resident may hem and haw a little when asked what duties fall under the County Clerk or Trustee, almost anyone might be able to guess that the Register of Deeds is responsible for … registering deeds.

The office on the second floor of the City County Building documents and maintains records of every real estate transaction in the county. That means not only sales but also mortgages, liens, and any legal instrument affecting the ownership and control of property.

It is one of the oldest functions of local government, dating back to the colonial era — as soon as there was property ownership in East Tennessee, there had to be a way to track it and protect it. It is also one of the offices least driven by ideology or policy-making, since its functions are entirely clerical.

That makes it an odd fit for partisan elections, but that’s how it is set up in both the state constitution and the county charter. In the Aug. 4 county general election, incumbent Nick McBride, a Republican, is seeking a second four-year term. He faces a challenge from Democratic candidate Scott Crammond.

The office is self-funded from commissions on various transactions. It collected about $36 million in taxes and fees in 2021, the majority of it in state transfer taxes that are sent to Nashville.

After paying its operating expenses — most of them to cover a staff of 21 full-time employees — the office turns over any excess fees each year to the county’s general fund. Those amounts have risen over McBride’s time in office from $825,000 his first year to $2.27 million last year, reflecting the recent surge in real estate activity and prices.

Not surprisingly, the incumbent has a campaign funding advantage — McBride reported $57,909 on hand at the end of April, to zero for Crammond. However, $50,000 of McBride’s account was in loans he made to his campaign. The position pays about $135,000 a year.

Having weathered the COVID-19 pandemic without shutting down or cutting any staff, McBride promises to carry through the complete digitization of the office’s extensive archives. That will make it much easier to trace the history of any given property.

Crammond, a real estate agent, says he is not running against McBride so much as offering voters a choice on the ballot. He is particularly interested in making the office’s historical records more accessible to researchers and the public at large. 

Here’s a look at the two candidates.

Nick McBride

McBride is a Knox County native who grew up in the Cedar Bluff area and graduated from Farragut High School. An initial foray into higher education at Middle Tennessee State University didn’t take, although he later earned a bachelor’s degree from Tusculum University.

What did take was a student internship in the City County Building that allowed him to shadow several county officials over the course of a few years. 

“I guess you could say I kind of got the bug,” said McBride, who is 52.

His father, who just passed away in December, sold real estate for more than 50 years, and that was McBride’s first professional stop as well. He started buying and selling parcels of property. But having grown up around the business, he had mixed feelings about it.

“I've been around it all my life,” he said. “The open houses, you never know when you get to go on vacation, you may have one planned and a client calls, and then that's canceled. I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do.”

The register of deeds at the time, Steve Hall, had told McBride to call if he was ever looking for a job. So McBride did. He has been in the City County Building ever since.

“I started working part-time in the record room, and I’ve worked my way through the office from the back to the front,” he said. “I know the inner workings of the office inside and out.”

He worked for 28 years in the office under Hall and Sherry Witt, who served two terms after Hall was forced out by term limits. Witt named McBride as her chief deputy, and when she was term-limited herself in 2018, he was a logical candidate. He defeated an entirely different Steve Hall — the former state legislator — in the Republican primary that year, and faced no opposition in the general election.

During his term in office, McBride has overseen the installation of a new software system, replacing the 20-year-old system that in 1999 made the office one of the first in the City County Building to go completely paperless.

The system is open to the public, but its most frequent users are title attorneys and companies researching and conducting real estate deals. It allows users to create accounts and it remembers their previous searches, cutting down considerably on research time.

“I think if you ask anybody in the title companies, our system is one of the best in the country,” McBride said. “Personally, I haven’t seen one that’s any better.”

The next technological step was the digitization of the office’s records before 1968, reaching all the way back to the 1700s. With County Commission’s support, McBride contracted with a company to do that last year, and the rough copies arrived this winter.

“So immediately, Knox County archives and the historians can go use these at the Archives office, they can look at the images instead of having to use microfilm,” McBride said. “It's saving them tons and tons of time. And then phase two and phase three is cleaning those images up, getting the page numbers set correctly. We should have those in November of this year and then we’ll be rolling those out for the public to see.”

That will make it much easier for people to, say, trace the ownership history of their home, office or apartment building.

McBride has taken other steps to make the office more visible and useful as a public resource. Graphs on the office’s website show annual trends in the county’s total value of property transfers, total value of mortgages and foreclosures. He also writes a weekly column for KnoxTNToday, where he notes the total amount of the prior week’s activities and highlights notable purchases.

All of those document a jump in real estate activity over the past two years — a time during which McBride kept the office operating at the height of the pandemic, with a mixture of in-person and remote staff.

“I sent a letter to the Association of Realtors that said, ‘Please share with all your brokers and affiliates that no matter what, we're going to keep this office open in order to keep the economy going,’” he said. “The last thing that we need is for our economy to slow down.”

McBride currently serves as president of the Tennessee Registers Association. Overall, he said, his goal is to preserve the public trust in an office responsible for documenting the literal foundations of the community.

“There is a lot of distrust in government,” he said. “At the point that there is distrust in the records in the Register of Deeds’ office, then what do you have? A serious problem. It is imperative that the users and the citizens have confidence in this office.”

Scott Crammond

Unusually for a candidate looking to unseat an incumbent, Crammond said he did not have any significant criticisms of McBride’s stewardship of the office.

“I’m not running against Nick McBride,” he said. “I’m running for the position. Because for all intents and purposes, it seems like Nick McBride is doing a good job.”

Crammond, who is 33, said his interest in the office stems from his experience in real estate combined with a passion for history. He envisions the Register of Deeds office as not only a collection of important legal documents, but a trove of narratives waiting to be unspooled.

“With a mass digital archive at a community’s fingertips, finally you can find out what happened to great-grandpa’s farm,” he said. “Is it a strip mall? You heard once upon a time, it might have been somewhere in Rocky Hill. That’s where this digital archive can come in handy.”

Like McBride, Crammond ended up in real estate after quitting school, but in his case it was a graduate program in medieval studies at the University of Tennessee. He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and paid for his tuition at Ohio State University by serving in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was a member of the Army Band, playing tuba and bass guitar and running sound.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2011, he enrolled at UT. By the time he realized he didn’t want to pursue an academic career, he had become fond of Knoxville.

“I decided to stick around even though I was done with school, did what any other liberal arts major does, and I started serving tables and bartending,” he said. That led him into doing sales and marketing for Blackhorse Brewery, and then to an administrative job at real estate company Fox & Fogarty. He has been a full-time Realtor there since 2017. 

“I love it,” he said. “I get to help people in Knox County make the first biggest decision of their lives, other than opening a business. I get to help people, my friends, their family, maybe sell the house that they grew up in and move on to the next one. There’s a lot of nuance and technicality and skill that goes into it, but at the end of the day it’s just helping people.”

The business has gotten tougher during the pandemic surge, because listings are moving so fast that the inventory for sale at any time is scarce. (He and his wife were among the buyers in the market, purchasing a home last year in the Burlington area of East Knoxville.)

“I have the experience and know-how and the technical skill to get a leg up and make sure that I'm not starving,” Crammond said. “But I do not envy the folks who are coming in completely green and the market we've had in 2021 or 2022, just because there hasn't been anything.”

He said his real estate experience is good background for understanding both the importance of the Register of Deeds office and all the facets of its work.

“I deal with deeds every day, I deal with title companies every day, I deal with tax records every single day,” he said. 

His academic background in history has also given him an appreciation for the importance of archival documents and the need to preserve them.

“I’ve done archival research,” Crammond said. “I’ve been in basements with deep and dusty file cabinets and understand what that’s like, and the delicacy you need when accessing those files.”

He was already active as a local Democrat when the county party sent out a mass text message last fall seeking to recruit candidates for the 2022 elections. Crammond had thought in the past about running for office someday, so he looked at the list of offices on the ballot and realized he would be a good fit for the register’s race.

“It just seemed like I’m uniquely qualified for this, rather than having no kids in school and deciding to run for school board,” he said.

Crammond said he thinks it’s important for voters to have options and for one party to not completely control the levers of local government. And he said his concerns about the direction of the national Republican Party carry over into local races.

“I don’t need to get too scandalous, but until a Republican candidate can say, ‘I am not a MAGA, I am not a Trump candidate,’ I could never vote for another Republican again,” Crammond said.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to note that McBride is president of the Tennessee Registers Association.