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He's the Point Man in Builders' Battles Against Slow Growth

March 26, 1989|DAVID W. MYERS | Times Staff Writer and

It was two months before election day 1988, and Southland builders were clearly worried.

Surveys indicated that Measure A, a proposition on the June ballot that would make deep cuts in new home construction in Orange County, could win by as much as 80% of the vote.

If the measure should pass, many local builders would suffer millions of dollars in lost sales and see the value of their buildable land plummet.

Enter Lynn R. Wessell, a veteran political consultant who had come to the rescue of other builders and realtors facing seemingly unsurmountable odds dozens of times in the past.

Armed with sophisticated computer programs, targeted mailings and hundreds of workers--not to mention a multimillion-dollar budget--Wessell launched a finely tuned drive aimed at scuttling the initiative.

Almost immediately, the initiative's approval rating began to drop. By election day, just eight weeks after Wessell had taken control of the faltering "No on A" campaign, the measure went down to a resounding 56%-44% defeat.

"I guess you could say it was one of my finer moments," Wessell said recently in an interview in his cluttered, no-frills office on North Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. "But it's always satisfying when you win."

The battle wasn't cheap: It cost more than $2 million to defeat Measure A, with most of the money coming from builders. Some of the cash-strapped slow-growth advocates who supported the proposition complained that Wessell had "bought the election," but the consultant says it was just the cost of doing business.

Willing to Discuss

"Money is a resource--nothing more, nothing less," Wessell said. "In the case of Measure A, the slow-growth side had people. Our biggest resource was money. And if it takes money to get your message out--I don't care what kind of campaign you're working on--then you have to spend it."

Wessell's willingness to discuss money's role in politics is just one factor that sets him apart from other campaign consultants, most of whom are tight-lipped when it comes to talking about cash.

Much of the money Wessell spends is on targeted mailers aimed straight at the voter's pocketbook. In the Measure A campaign, one mailer inferred that passage of the initiative would erode the tax-cutting Proposition 13 of a decade earlier, while another indicated that families in the northern portion of Orange County would wind up paying $1,800 each for a measure designed to benefit only "some south county elitists."

"I never lie in a campaign, because once you do, you lose the confidence of the voters and undermine your whole campaign," Wessell said. But, he added after some prodding, "There's no rule that says you have to represent everybody's point of view.

Telling the Truth

"I'm here to get across my own and my client's point of view, and the other side is responsible for getting across theirs. But I believe you always have to tell the truth."

Telling the truth is a tenet that some of Wessell's current and past opponents say that Wessell himself breaks often. Many commonly refer to him as "Weasel," not Wessell.

"His mailers were all a bunch of bull . . . ," said Belinda Blacketer, an attorney who worked on Measure A. "Lynn Wessell is very good at taking things totally out of context and then running with it."

Added Russ Burkett, a leader in the losing Measure A campaign: "The guy is the consummate political liar. If there was a way to litigate First Amendment rights when it comes to politics, Wessell would be in court all the time."

Thanks in part to his surprise victory in Orange County last year, Wessell has never been busier than he is today. Shortly after his big win last spring, nearly every California builder who was facing an upcoming slow-growth proposition or other land-use issue offered to hire him.

Other Issues of Interest

Wessell turned most of them down.

"Fighting growth ordinances is a very difficult and time-consuming job--it really stretches your resources," said Wessell, who claims to have worked on campaigns for nearly 20 growth issues and won 80% of them. "Besides, there are a lot of other issues I'm interested in."

The 50-year-old consultant never expected to become such a hot property. Born in Los Angeles, he attended Greenville College in Illinois and received a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in religion, "thinking seriously of going into the ministry." He served as a communications specialist in the Air Force from 1960 to 1964, processing top-secret messages in Okinawa and later, in Riverside.

He taught at several Midwestern schools after his Air Force stint, finally returning to California in 1969 to get his doctorate in political science from Claremont Graduate School at the Claremont Colleges in the San Gabriel Valley.

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