Early Life and Career
Dennis O’Keefe was born at St. Clare’s Hospital in the heart of St. John’s — the city in which he would study, work and live. He attended St. Bonaventure’s College, then went on to study at Memorial University of Newfoundland, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (History) and a Bachelor of Education in 1967.
That same year, at age 23, he began a 30-year career as a high school teacher with stints at Brother Rice High School, St. Patrick’s Hall, and Beaconsfield High School, all in St. John’s. He continued his own education, too, receiving a master’s in history in 1978. O’Keefe retired from teaching in the spring of 1997.
In 1971, he married Grace Lahey. They have two daughters, Carolyn and Denise.
Just a few weeks into his retirement, O’Keefe threw his hat in the ring for the 1997 St. John’s municipal election. Enlisting the help of family, friends and former students — who delivered flyers for him — O’Keefe ran a successful campaign and was elected as one of four councillors-at-large on 30 September that year.
Quickly earning a reputation as friendly, approachable and calm, O’Keefe ran again for councillor-at-large in 2001, this time taking the most votes (26,122) of any at-large candidate. (His nearest competitor, former St. John’s mayor Shannie Duff, was next with 21,193).
His popularity only increased and in 2005, O’Keefe successfully ran for the deputy mayor’s job, taking 74 per cent of votes cast. O’Keefe’s temperament and his perceived ability to work well with others stood in stark contrast to that of the bombastic and outspoken mayor at the time, Andy Wells (Wells earned as many headlines for insulting councillors, as for city-related achievements).
In 2008, Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams appointed Wells chair and chief executive officer of the province’s Public Utilities Board. Wells was required to resign as mayor and on 3 March 2008, O’Keefe stepped in as interim mayor. Exactly three months later, O’Keefe won the by-election for the mayor’s chair and officially became the 14th mayor of St. John’s.
Council meetings under O’Keefe were notably more civil and calm than under his predecessor, if slower-moving. “I listened to everybody,” O’Keefe told CBC in 2008. “I got all the facts and when I was comfortable with my decisions, then I would vote…some people call that fence-sitting.”
O’Keefe was returned as mayor in the 2009 and 2013 elections with 57 per cent of votes cast each time. The St. John’s Telegram summed up O’Keefe’s 2013 election victory this way: “O’Keefe’s win was predictable — he doesn’t rock the boat, and he has made an art form of charming the citizenry on his regular walkabouts.”
A long-time member of the Progressive Conservative party, O’Keefe says he has worked on conservative political campaigns since the era of prime minister John Diefenbaker in the early 1960s. However, he was a vocal opponent of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, over the declining federal presence and federal investment in St. John’s:
“Maybe it’s happened [so] often since 1949 with Confederation that we’re used to getting a kick in the rear end…I don’t mind if we got our fair share [of cuts] but we’ve never had our fair share of federal jobs in this province, period,” he told CBC.
On 31 March 2011, medical staff had to use CPR and a single shock from a defibrillator to revive O’Keefe after he collapsed during a routine stress test. He underwent open-heart surgery on 6 April to remove three blockages that had been found in a single artery. O’Keefe reported a quick recovery, which he attributed to his healthy lifestyle.
He was back at work in City Hall in June, offering this piece of advice: “It’s important to put everything in perspective…Smell the roses, b’y, because life can reverse itself pretty fast.”
Cruise Ship Industry Booster
In the late 1990s, O’Keefe launched the Consumer Group for Fair Gas Prices and Consumer Power, establishing himself as a consumer advocate and championing regulated fuel prices, which were implemented in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001.
O’Keefe was also instrumental in encouraging the cruise ship industry’s presence in St. John’s, becoming chair of Cruise Newfoundland and Labrador and, since 1998, chair of the Cruise St. John’s committee. He has been criticized for the amount of city spending on cruise industry-related travel; O’Keefe and his staff spent nearly $150,000 attending travel shows and other meetings between 2005 and 2015.
O’Keefe is known as a candidate of the status quo — it is the stability he offers, not vision, that gets him re-elected — and has thus enjoyed a relatively smooth tenure as mayor. Some notable flip-flops have raised eyebrows, including a change of opinion regarding sidewalk clearing: in early 2008 O’Keefe voted against a $180,000 sidewalk clearing plan, citing a lack of available funding; a few months later, about the time Andy Wells resigned as mayor, O’Keefe proposed his own $500,000 sidewalk-clearing plan.
Throughout the first years of his mayoralty, the oil-fuelled economy was strong in St. John’s and O’Keefe’s steady hand worked. For 2016, however, city council brought down a tough budget which included major cuts to program and arts funding and a major property tax hike that hit homeowners (12.7 per cent on average) and, especially, small business (14.3 per cent average commercial tax increase). The backlash from the public, and arts and business communities was strong; protests led to the reinstatement of arts funding.
In February 2016, deputy mayor Ron Ellsworth called O’Keefe to task for pocketing the fees he collected as a marriage commissioner, while using city buildings and staff to conduct the ceremonies. O’Keefe responded by waiving future marriage fees.
The next municipal election is set for September 2017; as of March 2017, O’Keefe has not declared publicly if he intends to run.