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L.A. County assessor candidates vie in shadow of a higher-profile race

John Morris, a head deputy to the Los Angeles County district attorney, is hoping to win the county assessor job in the Nov. 4 election.

Even with the current officeholder fighting felony corruption charges, the two candidates running to be the next Los Angeles County assessor have had trouble attracting interest.

Jeffrey Prang, a senior aide in the assessor’s office and a West Hollywood city councilman, and John Morris, a head deputy to the Los Angeles County district attorney, are facing off in Tuesday’s election to replace current assessor John Noguez, who is on paid leave and awaiting trial on charges that he took bribes in exchange for lowering property valuations.

Prang has lined up endorsements from a long list of elected officials, including most of the current and incoming county supervisors, the county Democratic Party and a wide swath of business and labor groups — although the union representing tax appraisers did not endorse in the race. Morris, a registered Republican who has pledged to protect Proposition 13, has gained the support of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and many local media outlets.

Both candidates have argued they are best suited to maintain reforms and modernize an antiquated, largely paper-based record-keeping system for the office, which appraises about 2.5 million parcels each year.

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Prang has touted his experience in the assessor’s office and in previous government positions, including as assistant city manager in Pico Rivera and as a special assistant in the county Sheriff’s Department. Morris has pointed to his experience as a white-collar criminal prosecutor and manager in the district attorney’s office, and as a real estate lawyer before that.

But the race has largely been overshadowed by the higher-profile campaign for county supervisor.

There have been no public debates in the runoff, and the two assessor candidates have raised less than $1 million combined, with Prang’s backers giving about $680,000 to his campaign and an independent committee supporting it, compared with about $260,000 for Morris. By comparison, more than $4 million has been raised to support each of the two candidates running to replace Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Given that lack of spending, Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said most voters would go to the voting booth knowing almost nothing about the candidates or the issues.

“They don’t know what the assessor does, they’ve probably forgotten who John Noguez is, and neither candidate has the money to remind them,” he said. Most voters, Guerra said, will “go in there and make a decision based on the name on the ballot, the title on the ballot and what little they’ve heard.”

Because of that, he said, the outcome is difficult to predict, though he thinks Prang is likely to have the advantage.

Because of fallout from the Noguez scandal, tax agents who argue for lower assessments on behalf of property owners are now banned from contributing to assessor candidates. Tax agents accounted for at least 5% of Noguez’s contributions in 2010, according to a Times analysis.

The largest share of contributions to Morris’ campaign came from fellow attorneys. Prang received the largest share of contributions from people in the real estate sector. Former contributors to Noguez — including real estate professionals, elected officials and trash company Athens Services — have thrown considerably more support behind Prang than Morris. The former Noguez contributors gave about $40,000 to support Prang versus $1,500 for Morris, according to a Times analysis.

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Morris has cited Prang’s “long association” with Noguez, who hired him shortly before he went on leave in mid-2012. “I think a lot of this is going to be insider versus an outsider,” Morris said of the race.

Prang says he was part of engineering Noguez’s exit from the office and has served as part of a “reform administration” since then:

“I think the reason I’m raising more money is, I think it’s clear that I’m the better-qualified candidate and I’m the one who has articulated a clear vision and plan for the office,” he said.

Follow @sewella for more news about county elections

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Times staff writer Maloy Moore contributed to this report.


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