The contest to succeed John Wells for the Writers Guild of America West presidency should serve as a referendum on the WGA’s new film-TV contract.

That signal came from low-key candidate statements from WGAW secretary-treasurer Michael Mahern, who offered a significantly more upbeat assessment of the deal than rival Victoria Riskin, a four-year board member. Wells, who has endorsed Mahern, decided in June not to seek a second two-year term.

Mahern and Riskin served on the negotiating committee and endorsed the three-year pact; both admitted in their statements that the Guild needed to create a convincing strike threat before the deal was reached last May.

“The 2001 negotiations produced what many writers regard as the best contract in 20 years,” Mahern wrote. “This was not an accident but rather the result of three years of meticulous planning and relentless preparation. We made a very good deal with substantial real gains, but without breakthroughs in two key areas — basic cable and videocassette/DVD residuals — that we might have realized if the strong ad market had held up for a few months.”

Mahern, who gained national notice a year ago for warning writers to start saving money for a possible strike, also said the WGA succeeded in establishing what he called “a new bargaining paradigm.”

‘Stand still’ contract

“The days of the ‘stand still’ contract are over so long as we stand strong,” he wrote. “The studios and networks now realize that every three years they will have to deal with the bargaining issues of writers. That was the great achievement of 2001.”

Riskin took a more measured view of the deal: “I voted to approve the contract both on the negotiating committee and on the board because I believed then and believe now that it was in the best interest of our membership despite having serious regrets about what we did not achieve.”

Riskin, the daughter of thesp Fay Wray and screenwriter Robert Riskin, said she was disappointed by three parts of the pact: lack of gains in residuals for basic cable, representation of animated writers and the failure to eliminate the “A Film By” credit. And she emphasized the importance of the hot-button credit issue, which was deferred in the last days of negotiations.

“I have always felt that the issue of the possessory credit is relevant to all writers, television as well as screen,” Riskin wrote. “When anyone’s contribution is unfairly elevated at the expense of any writer’s, all writers are being treated disrespectfully. This disrespect carries forward, I believe, into other areas and affects us all, financially and creatively.”

‘Younger’ writers on team

Riskin also said the negotiating team should have included “younger and newer” writers, along with a scribe from the low-budget sector. Mahern stressed a consensus approach by saying, “To try to lead a union into battle from any position except the broad middle of the membership is to court disaster.”

Both candidates stressed the importance of Guild unity and avoided taking potshots at each other, with Mahern starting his statement by praising Riskin. “We’ve served on many committees together, occasionally disagreeing on strategy but always working toward a common goal of advancing the interest of writers,” he said. “She has my utmost respect.”

The statements will be sent with ballots to the 8,500 WGAW members next week, along with the endorsement statements and platforms by 19 other candidates for two other offices and eight board seats. Final date for receipt will be Sept. 20.

Besides Wells, Mahern was endorsed by former WGAW presidents George Kirgo, Dan Petrie Jr. and Del Resiman. Riskin received backing from former WGAW prexies David Rintels, who is her husband, John Furia Jr., Ernest Lehman, Frank Pierson, Brad Radnitz and Melville Shavelson.

Election coming

The election will take place three and a half months after writers approved the pact with a strongly supportive 92% ratification vote. Turnout was 37%, the highest level in WGA history for a ratification vote.

If elected, Mahern will be the first openly gay WGAW prexy while Riskin would be the first female topper for the org since Mary McCall in the early 1950s.