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Andy Wells, iconic and iconoclastic former mayor of St. John’s, dead

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Andy Wells is pictured in 2017, when he launched his political comeback from his favourite Tim Hortons coffee shop in the Churchill Square neighbourhood of St. John’s. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Andy Wells, a longtime politician in St. John’s who was known across Canada for his bombastic and sometimes caustic jousting with opponents, has died.

Wells was mayor of St. John’s from 1997 to 2008, when he resigned to become the chair of the Public Utilities Commission, a regulatory post that pulled one of the most outspoken politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador out of the public discourse. 

Wells, then 72, made an unsuccessful attempt to regain the mayoralty in 2017.

“They’re wastrels and cowards,” he tweeted of his rivals in that campaign — a milder form of the insults he hurled during a lengthy career. 

Wells, a former labour organizer who gradually drifted to the conservative side of the political spectrum, was first elected to St. John’s council in 1977, representing the ward that includes the city’s colourful downtown. 

He fought frequently with others. His rowdy and often hilarious debates with former mayor John Murphy made televised meetings of council appointment watching on local-access cable television, and snippets were frequently aired on CBC Radio’s As It Happens

Wells was popular with voters, usually winning re-elections with ease. 

He also took on the powers that be, even as he later moved through powerful circles. He was the consumers’ representative on the Public Utilities Board through the 1980s, and grilled executives of power and telephone companies. 

But his abrasive style cost him allies in politics. He was known to be crude in private meetings, and would exhaust the patience of others. 

In 2006, after he called Shannie Duff — a former mayor herself, and then a councillor — a “stupid old woman,” council brought in measures against harassment. 

WATCH | From 2017, when Andy Wells was preparing a political comeback, a look at some of his innumerable controversial moments:

As former St. John’s Mayor Andy Wells announces his intention to run for city hall, the CBC’s Ryan Cooke takes a look back in the archives. 2:02

“There’s a saying in life: ‘Some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue.’ Well, last week I felt like a statue,” Wells said during an apology. 

“I will abide by the provisions of the bylaw,” he said. “So I guess I’ll get as boring as the rest of them.”

Colourful disputes with Danny Williams

Wells had complicated relationships with many people, including Danny Williams, the St. John’s lawyer and businessman who would go on to be premier in 2003. In 1994, when a city labour dispute threatened play involving the St. John’s Maple Leafs franchise that Williams helped bring to St. John’s, Wells said Williams pulled up to him in a vehicle and threatened him. 

“‘I hope you get the shit beaten out of you’ — that’s exactly what he said to me,'” Wells said. 

Williams, for his part, said Wells misquoted him. “What I did say to him was that it was my personal opinion that it would be in the best interests of the city if he got the shit knocked out of him,” Williams told CBC at the time. 

Danny Williams, left, and Andy Wells in 1994, when they sparred over a threat Wells insisted Williams made against him. (CBC)

Later, Williams — who had described Wells as “an ignorant pig” — came to form an alliance with Wells, with Williams in 2008 appointing him to a $175,000-a-year post overseeing the PUB. The requirements of that job meant Wells needed to be silent on issues, which meant his resignation as mayor. 

Later, after retiring from the PUB, Wells said he had personally opposed the ruinous Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, and was sharply critical of the Tory administration that launched the project, which has run billions of dollars over budget and to this day is not yet fully operational. 

“They were a pack of bullies,” he said in 2018, while describing for an inquiry called into Muskrat Falls how the government treated the PUB’s questioning of the project. 

“They went after people at the board. If the jackboots weren’t marching in the streets, they were marching in the suites.”

When he attempted a political comeback in 2017, Wells brought fiery rhetoric to the race, accusing the sitting council of illegal spending and secret meetings. 

Danny Breen, who would defeat Wells in that race, said he took Wells’s criticism in stride. “I’m certainly open to reasonable conversations, but I’ve got no intentions of getting into that,” Breen said at the time.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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