Two weeks after the Nov. 4 elections, as victorious candidates in other local races hire staff and plan the layout of their new offices, the contest for Los Angeles County assessor remains undecided.
Jeffrey Prang, a West Hollywood councilman and special assistant in the assessor's office, continues to hold a slim but steady lead over John Morris, a head deputy in the district attorney's office, according to the latest count released Tuesday.
Prang has increased his lead slightly since election night to 50.9% of the vote, compared to 49.1% for Morris. Prang was ahead by nearly 20,000 votes out of 1.1 million ballots processed so far, but 55,000 ballots remained to be counted.
Morris said he wasn't ready to concede and wants to "make sure that all the ballots are counted." Prang stopped short of declaring victory, but said "mathematically, it's a very difficult hill to climb" for his opponent.
"We've waited this long — we'll wait a little more," he said. "But I think there's every reason for optimism."
Both candidates said they had expected the little-watched race to be close as they tried to reach 4.5 million registered voters in the county on small campaign budgets compared to candidates running for other countywide offices.
"The assessor of Los Angeles County represents more people than the governors of 42 or 43 states, and it's one of those offices where it's very difficult to raise adequate funds to educate voters about your vision," Prang said.
Prang held a lead in fundraising throughout the campaign, with supporters contributing $713,000 to his campaign and an independent committee supporting his candidacy. Morris raised about $282,000.
Morris said Tuesday, "I think it came down to the amount of money the different candidates were able to spend on voter outreach."
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, agreed that the size of the candidates' campaign war chests was a factor.
"When there's not a lot of information about either candidate, the candidate with the highest name recognition wins, and unless there's an issue that drives a lot of media coverage, the candidate with more money is usually the one who's better known," he said. That particularly holds true in races for nonpartisan offices like the assessor's seat, he said.
The eventual winner will replace Assessor John Noguez, who has been on paid leave for more than two years and is awaiting trial on felony charges that he had property valuations lowered in exchange for bribes. Noguez hired Prang to handle public relations for the office in 2012, shortly before Noguez was forced out by the scandal. Prang has maintained that he engineered Noguez's exit from daily operations. Both candidates ran on promises to keep up the reforms made in the office.
"You had two candidates running against the incumbent, which may have blurred any advantage that Morris might have had" from his outsider status, Schnur said.
Spending in the assessor's race was a fraction of that in the contests for sheriff and county supervisor. And the profile of the contributors was distinct, according to a Times analysis of thousands of donations in this year's Los Angeles County government campaigns.
Unions dominated contributions in the race to replace retiring Supervisor
By comparison, the largest share of contributions in the assessor's race came from people and companies in the real estate sector. Those donors largely backed Prang — accounting for about $134,000 of his contributions, compared with $39,000 collected by Morris.
Public and private-sector unions contributed about $47,000 to Prang, who was endorsed by the county Democratic Party, but gave nothing to Morris, a registered Republican.
The next report on the ballot count is scheduled to be released Friday.