Lee, 69, is seeking a fourth term and is facing a challenge from fellow Democrat Toyin Fasakin, a supervisor in D.C. government who is running because when his Nigerian father died without a will, there was “agony and strife” as his two wives and their children divided his property.
“It’s personal for me,” said Fasakin, 40, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Ohio.
There is no Republican or independent seeking the office, so whoever wins Tuesday’s primary will head the Office of the Register of Wills following November’s general election.
Fasakin is deaf — adding an unusual twist to a typically low-profile race, and making him one of very few deaf candidates nationwide.
Gallaudet University’s Brendan Stern said that deaf people who, like Fasakin, communicate through American Sign Language, often struggle with “serious misunderstandings” that might discourage them from running for office.
When Fasakin has campaigned at civic associations, he said, he is sometimes asked: “Can a deaf person actually do that job?”
“I would say, ‘Hey, why not? This has nothing to do with my deafness. This is about skills, abilities, and qualifications to lead and manage,’ ” said Fasakin, who became deaf after contracting the measles at age 4. “I want to make changes happen.”
Maryland is one of only a handful of states nationwide with elected registers of wills, who are charged with opening estates for the deceased and registering and storing wills filed by residents. Each of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions elects a register.
Lee, who was the first African American elected to the office in Prince George’s County, describes herself as “a people person” and says she will run on her record of “proven leadership in the office.” She says she has made the office more tech-savvy, built its relationship with banks and funeral homes — with which the office coordinates to open estates — and makes of a point of interacting directly with residents.
“This is all about customer service,” said Lee, who retired from Verizon after 31 years. She said she will not turn residents away, even if they arrive minutes before the office closes, and will let staff who work with them come in a little late the next day to compensate.
“They call it Ms. Lee time,” she said as she sat in her office in Upper Marlboro, which is decorated with framed awards from civic associations, pictures with local politicians and lots of red — from the embossed folders to her pens to nail files she hands out. “People know me by the red,” she explains with a laugh. “It’s my signature color.”
Fasakin spent virtually every weekend this spring with deaf and hearing volunteers who have been knocking on doors and waving signs to try to unseat his better-funded opponent.
“You see his passion with his hands,” said volunteer Lydia Lee, who does not know sign language.
Standing with a group of volunteers in front of Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop in the Bowie Town Center food court, Lydia Lee said she liked that Fasakin wants to educate voters about the importance of drafting wills.
“We work so hard for what we have, and it’s not accounted for — that needs to change,” said Lydia Lee, of Temple Hills, who was recruited to join the campaign by a friend of Fasakin’s. Before then, she said, she didn’t know what the office did.
In charge of assigning door-knocking groups one Saturday, she divided about a dozen volunteers into groups of three so that each had a member who could hear.
At one stop, Bowie resident Mary Louise Lopez nodded along as Fasakin gave his pitch. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he wants to abolish the inheritance tax, increase outreach to residents about the importance of having a will and make the office more digital.
Lopez, a teacher, took his campaign flier and told him she would consider him. She said that “having a deaf person run shows that anyone with a supposed disability isn’t disabled at all.”
Cereta A. Lee says she has heard about Fasakin’s pitch and is already doing some of what he says he would do, including attending as many as 70 community events each year to speak about how to register a will. Lee said abolishing the inheritance tax, which is imposed when property is transferred, is simply outside the purview of what the register of wills can do.
“I never take anything for granted,” the incumbent said of the race. “Competition is good.”