The 14th and current mayor of St. John’s, Dennis O’Keefe, has been on council since 1997. After 20 years of service, we’ll find out “Tuesday or Wednesday” if he’s packing it in, or sticking around to give Wells, Sharpe, and Breen a run for their money.
He has confidently stated he thinks he’d beat Wells, if he runs. It was O’keefe who replaced Wells as our mayor in 2008, when Wells stepped down to accept a new job offer from Danny Williams as chair of the Public Utilities Board.
O’Keefe first ran for council back in 1997, as a Councillor At Large, within weeks of retiring as a teacher. Former students helped him campaign and stick up signs.
As a councillor at large, he was very well liked, deemed very approachable, and it got him re-elected in the role in 2001, with the most votes of any candidate (26,122) beating even the number of votes former mayor Shannie Duff had that year (21,193).
Riding that wave of public approval, O’Keefe ran for Deputy Mayor in 2005, and took it with a whopping 75% of votes. His chill demeanour ran a stark contrast to the ever-provocative mayor, Andy Wells.
Three years into his stint as deputy mayor, O’Keefe ran to replace Wells in a by-election. He ran against Marie White, who was also a former deputy mayor, and he beat her in that by-election with 58.1% of votes. With that, Marie White stepped away from municipal politics.
He and White ran a similar platform: issues pertaining to city planning, and financial management. Where he and she differed, was him disagreeing with White on pressing for an amalgamation of St. John’s and its neighbouring municipalities (Mt. Pearl, Torbay, etc).
Under O’Keefe’s reign, city council meetings immediately became much more tame, and much less snappy. To remain in the mayoral seat during 2009’s election, he had to beat current deputy mayor Ron Ellsworth and local organic farmer Mark Wilson, and did so with 57% of votes.
In 2014, current councillor Sheilagh O’Leary and a mental health worker Geoff Chaulk ran against him for mayor. The tight race panned out once again with 57% of votes in O’keefe’s favour. Only 35,000 people voted.
A shift in public perception of O’Keefe’s reign occurred when 2016’s budget dropped, and mud started being slung at current council because of it. Whether he’ll run this year, despite some outrage at the city’s financial decisions of late, we’ll know within 48 hours. Some feel the financial committee should bare the blame for the budget and any perceived financial misdoings, not the mayor; others say the mayor could have sat in on those meetings with a little more voice.
If fall 2017 is the end of the line for Doc, his legacy will be the development of our cruise ship industry, which is worth just over 12 million a year to the city. According to “The Economic Contribution of the International Cruise Industry in Canada” prepared by Business Research and Economic Advisors, the cruise industry generated $12.2 million in revenue in 2016.
To grow the industry to that level, he’s had to spend a little money, including $150,000 between 2005-2015 to attend travel shows. That garnered some public backlash too, from folks who haven’t heard the mantra: you have to spend money to make money. In his defense, $150,000 over 10 years, to build something worth 12 million a year, is good investment math.
O’Keefe also established the Consumer Group for Fair Gas Prices and Consumer Power to champion regulated fuel prices. They were implemented in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001.
A third and final thing he might be remembered for would no doubt be his butting heads with Harper’s government, for decisions he felt treated our province unfairly, lessened the decision-making power of cities like ours, and failed to provide adequate federal jobs in St. John’s.
Will this election ultimately be current versus former mayor? 4 more years of the same, four years we’ve seen before, or four years of something completely new? Who knows, but get engaged, will you? A good turn out at the polls will affect your city far more than 4 years of angry Facebook posts about who’s running the show and who isn’t.