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Campaigns for Assessor Join Ranks of the Nasty

Counties are seeing some vicious races for the traditionally low-key position, and experts aren't sure why.

May 26, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Up and down the state, political races for the normally staid post of county assessor have been awash in accusations that read like a rap sheet: sexual harassment, corruption, bribery and bilking tax collectors.

Leading up to the June 6 primary, two would-be assessors -- those in charge of calculating property taxes -- have taken their rivals to court over ballot descriptions and campaign logos.

A deputy assessor in Yolo County persuaded the state to investigate his opponent, who is also his boss.

The assessor in San Bernardino County asked the district attorney to prosecute his opponent, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, for allegedly making staffing cuts based on race and sex and trying to bribe the assessor into endorsing him, which the supervisor denies.

The theatrics seem to carry on a recent tradition: assessor campaigning that the California Taxpayers' Assn. once termed "hand-to-hand combat" and which has tested candidates in San Francisco, Merced, San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles counties.

The vitriol has political scientists scratching their heads: All this for a quiet political office that's rarely a springboard to power?

The trend could stem from national and state attack politics trickling to the local level, experts said, or term limits in the state Legislature, which have small-time politicians scrambling for a variety of local elected posts while waiting for the higher positions to open up.

Political pragmatism is also a likely factor, said Terry Christensen, a San Jose State political science professor: "It's hard to get a lot of attention saying you'll be a very effective assessor."

Ironically, assessor races were more genteel affairs decades ago, when the winner might then have enough leeway to treat buddies to breaks on their appraisals.

In the 1960s, officeholders in San Francisco and Alameda counties were convicted of bribery, and San Diego County's assessor, who was under investigation by the state, fatally overdosed on barbiturates.

The assessors' fiefdoms shrank in 1978 when California voters embraced Proposition 13, which limits annual hikes in property tax. Sizing up a property's worth became far more streamlined, with assessors checking that records were current and appraisals were fair.

The post, which the state Constitution requires for California's 58 counties, often receives less scrutiny than county supervisor or district attorney, and the pay sometimes reaches six figures.

When a seat opens, "that creates a contested race -- and there's a lot of yelling in contested races," said Ron Roach, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers' Assn., a nonpartisan group that monitors state and local tax issues.

Hence the 2000 assessor campaign in Los Angeles County. With no primary to whittle down a 16-person field, eventual victor Rick Auerbach was called a carpetbagger by his top opponent, John Lynch, because he owned a home in Chino Hills.

"It makes it hard to run a campaign," said Auerbach, who also serves as the California Assessors' Assn. president. "People say things and they get in the paper and it's treated as gospel truth."

In 2002, a banner year for assessor campaign high-jinks, a candidate in Merced County charged that assessor's office employees were so distraught that the county had hired a psychologist. He lost.

In San Luis Obispo County, the challenger had better luck, nudging out the 25-year incumbent with campaign mailers mentioning a lawsuit that contended an assessor's investigator had trespassed by entering a resident's backyard.

But San Francisco won for wackiest in 2002, as incumbent Doris Ward was toppled by an FBI probe into whether she steered a city contract to a political consultant. She was never charged, and the winner's ascent was fleeting. Mabel Teng resigned in 2005 amid accusations that she had hired or given breaks on assessments to friends and contributors -- resulting in another voter-taxing campaign.

Smearing an opponent in a local race is a familiar tactic, often done with direct mailers that may escape the notice of folks fixated on bigger elections, said Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar, who studies negative campaigning.

In a hard-fought assessor campaign, mudslinging may be the best weapon. The job is bureaucratic and provides candidates with few issues to haggle with. Spiteful attacks grab press attention, Iyengar said, with few voters remembering which candidate landed the first punch.

The nasty stumping, though helpful for little-known names, could backfire in another manner: Voters might skip the race because it is buried on the ballot and there are no party designations in a nonpartisan race.

"The thinking is, they're all scumbags; how do you choose?" said Christensen of San Jose State.

This year's slugfests should be an interesting test.

In Santa Clara County, a court ordered one aspirant to change his ballot statement implying that the incumbent was in league with developers.

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