Candidates not attacking each other, focusing on issues

Two years after John Wells rattled Hollywood to the core by warning about a possible Writers Guild of America strike, the campaigns to succeed Wells as WGA West prexy have taken a notably quieter approach.

Wells railed against studios in the 1999 contest over “lack of respect” for writers; rival Beth Sullivan blasted Wells for not being tough enough. But with a new three-year film/TV deal in hand for writers, the current contest between secretary-treasurer Michael Mahern and board member Victoria Riskin has emerged as cordial with no attacks on each other.

Both are taking serious approaches, stressing their commitment to the cause of advancing the interests of the 8,500 members, rather than provoking fights.

“The WGA should not be a top-down organization but one that grows in power the more its members are heard,” Riskin said in a mailing. “Together we will create this new agenda, which will strengthen the cause of all writers.”

“This looks like it will be a very low-key campaign on the issues,” said Mahern, who is endorsed by Wells. “We’ve got a very intelligent membership. It’s important to be unemotional, direct and to the point.”

Although both are planning campaign parties and mailings, neither has taken the step of setting up a campaign Web site. Kristin Gore is hosting a party for Riskin, and WGAW VP Daniel Petrie Jr. will host at a get-together for Mahern.

Both served on the negotiating team and backed the deal; both agree that the Guild made the right decision to spurn fast-track early negotiations last year in favor of the nerve-wracking path that was taken — traditional bargaining down to the contract expiration deadline — because of the need for gains in key areas that had been ignored in recent contracts.

“We had to be willing to push hard to make our point and we may have to again in the future,” Mahern said.

Despite the lack of campaign fireworks, the election will likely serve as a barometer of the militance of the WGA members. The new pact, worth an additional $41 million, was endorsed by 92% of members.

Riskin has positioned herself as having “serious regrets” about what was not achieved in the new contract in video/DVD, animation and creative rights; Mahern has called it “a very good deal” without breakthroughs in basic cable and video/DVD that might have come had the ad market not tanked.

Mahern, who also served as co-chair of the negotiating committee, stressed he will bring a realistic approach to issues. He did not rule out the notion of using an early negotiations approach in the next round if it appears to offer the chance for the best possible deal.

“I would characterize myself as a pragmatist and a problem-solver,” Mahern said. “I’m running on things I’ve actually done.”

Mahern, who has drawn support so far from moderates, has been careful not to come across as overly accommodating, and stressed in his campaign statement that prepping for the 2004 negotiations has already started. “We must maintain our position as the smartest, best prepared and toughest union negotiators in Hollywood,” he said in his candidate statement.

Riskin, wife of former WGAW prexy David Rintels, is emphasizing the goal of being open, inclusive and a coalition builder. Key areas include organizing non-union operations, contract compliance and advancing on creative rights.

She decided in June to run following encouragement from former presidents Frank Pierson and John Furia Jr.

“I’m a good listener,” she added. “I come to this as a person who has passion, not as a politician. My fingers are itching to do more.”

The WGAW mailed ballots and candidate statements Friday for the election, with a Sept. 20 deadline for return.

Turnout in the 1999 election was light at 19% with Wells receiving 854 votes to Sullivan’s 614, possibly due to Wells being perceived as a shoe-in. In 1997, Petrie defeated Lynn Roth with 1,279 votes to Roth’s 1,106.

Wells, exec producer of “ER,” “The West Wing” and “Third Watch,” decided in June not to seek a second term as president.

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