In a surprise move that portends a vigorous election, John Wells has entered the race for the presidency of the WGA West — eight years after completing a two-year term in the same post and helping to avert a strike.

Wells, one of the biz’s most prominent TV producers, will be facing Elias Davis, current secretary and a close ally of current WGA West president Patric Verrone.

And in another unexpected development, Verrone is one of the candidates for the board. He’s termed out after serving two consecutive two-year terms as prez, but he is eligible for a board seat.

The contest between Wells and Davis could well turn the election into a referendum on the WGA West leadership of the past few years, as Davis was a key member of Verrone’s Writers United coalition that advocated a tough stance with the majors in the contract talks involving new media, over which the guild waged its 100-day strike in late 2007-early 2008.

Wells’ decision to run again for the post he held from 1999-2001 had not been anticipated. In his previous tenure as president, Well steered the guild through its contentious 2001 contract talks with the majors, which went three days past expiration but ultimately avoided a strike.

Wells said he backed away from WGA politics in 2001 after his son was born but had been planning to get more involved now that his son’s older. He also said the death of former WGA West president John Furia Jr. in May been another push.

“John Furia was my mentor and he’d been saying that people who have experience with guild service should continue to stay involved to maintain our institutional memory,” Wells said.

Wells said his campaign will center on how to best deal with what he called the “seismic” changes within the biz such as new digital delivery systems.

“The whole business model is under a lot of stress and we need to make sure that writers are paid appropriately for their work,” he said.

Davis did not return a call seeking comment on Monday.

Verrone said he decided to seek a board seat “because I feel I can still contribute to WGAW governance — if the membership will have me.”

A victory by Wells could dramatically alter the WGA West’s negotiating posture for the next round of contract talks, which are expected to begin by the end of next year for a successor to the hard-fought existing contract that expires in May 2011.

Wells is seen within the WGA as a pragmatist while Verrone and his Writers United allies have pushed the guild toward a more hardline posture — and gained nearly all the elected slots since 2005.

And while Wells is highly regarded in the biz, his election as WGA West prexy is hardly a shoo-in.

Verrone’s Writers United coalition tapped into a strong sentiment among rank-and-file WGA West members that guild leadership had grown too accomodating to management. Wells’ past regime has been criticized by some members for what they perceived as failures to push hard for gains in new media and cable TV, among other issues.

Wells also came in for criticism from strike supporters when he spoke out in favor of the WGA accepting the contract terms that the majors reached with the DGA in January 2008. Wells’ public support of the DGA deal reflected the sentiment of many TV writer-producers, who by that time were privately pushing WGA leadership to move toward a settlement.

The election announcement issued Monday by the guild included 22 candidates for 11 posts with all approved by the WGA West nominating committee. Members can also run by submitting a nominating petition by July 23; the election results will be announced Sept. 18.

Elections at the WGA West generally draw about 20% participation among the 8,000 eligible members. The contrast between the candidates at the top of the ticket this time around could well boost turnout among a membership that has become more engaged in guild affairs since the strike.

Candidates for the vice prexy post are a pair of board members — Verrone ally Tom Schulman and Howard Michael Gould, who also served on the WGA negotiating committee in the last round of embattled contract talks. Gould gave a particularly well-received speech in a meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center a few days before the strike.

Christopher Keyser and David Weiss are up for the secretary-treasurer post. Weiss at present is veep.

In addition to Verrone, candidates for the eight open board seats drew only two incumbents — Howard Rodman and Dan Wilcox. Others (listed in an order determined by lot according to WGA West rules): Luvh Rakhe, Linda Burstyn, Mick Betancourt, Jan Oxenberg, Eric Wallace, Jed Weintrob, Chip Johannessen, Andrea King, Steven Schwartz, Jeff Lowell, Billy Ray, Carleton Eastlake and David Wyatt.

A number of the board candidates served as strike captains during the work stoppage, including Betancourt, Eastlake, Rakhe, Wallace and Wyatt.

Four board incumbents who are Verrone allies — Nick Kazan, Robert King, Joan Meyerson and Phil Alden Robinson — opted to not seek re-election to the board. And Writers United supporter Peter Lefcourt was prevented from seeking re-election due to having served the maximum of four consecutive board terms. 

The WGA East announced its candidates earlier this month, with incumbent prexy Michael Winship — who was a staunch ally of Verrone’s during the strike — running unopposed.