'Grey man' to lead the Supercity?

By Heather McCracken

Len Brown at home with his wife Shan Inglis. Photo / Janna Dixon
Len Brown at home with his wife Shan Inglis. Photo / Janna Dixon

If you know only two things about Len Brown, it's probably these: That he's Mayor of Manukau, and he had a heart attack.

Of course, he'd hope you also know a third, quite important thing: He wants to be Supermayor of Auckland.

Maybe you've also heard he likes to sing. Maybe you saw him give a cringe-worthy version of Play That Funky Music, White Boy on a television comedy show.

And perhaps you have a sense that he's never quite nailed his colours to the Supercity mast.

But what else? What's known about him outside of Manukau? And how has he got to be the front runner - if you trust the polls - for the top job in Auckland politics?

Up against a candidate who's known throughout the country, Brown might have seemed the underdog when he declared 10 months ago.

Only he's not. He's not running along behind juggernaut Banks. He's got momentum. He's got grassroots support. He's polling miles ahead.

Brown may want you to know about his values, his desire to be the "mayor for all Auckland", and his commitment to community.

But the funny thing is, he's doing just fine on what you know already: That he's the other candidate, the man from Manukau, the heart attack guy, the one who's not John Banks.

HERE'S SOME other things you might like to know: Len Brown was born in Taumaranui, but grew up and went to school in Otara and Papatoetoe.

He's mad about rugby, and played halfback for Papatoetoe seniors, but wasn't "big enough or robust enough" to make it at rep level.

The son of a school principal, he studied and practiced law out of, he says, a sense of fairness and desire to help people.

His wife, Shan Inglis, with whom he has three children, is also a lawyer.

But there was always politics. He signed up for the Labour Party at age 17 - a fact the Banks team says he's keeping quiet, but Brown is quite open about it - and has been a member ever since.

"I understood from a very early age the importance of being in the place where decisions are made about how you go forward," he said.

He was on the Manukau City Council from 1992 until 2004, when his first bid for the mayoralty against Sir Barry Curtis failed.

After staking his political life on the mayoral ticket, choosing not to stand for council as well, he was left out in the cold for a term.

"It reiterated the importance of resilience, and that you've got to tough it out through good times and bad," Brown says.

Curtis stood down from the mayoralty in 2007, opening the way for Brown's emphatic win, described in the media as a "Lenslide."

Brown became Manukau's singing, rapping mayor, who talks to shoppers at malls on Fridays.

He was still riding the wave of support when he took the stage to celebrate the success of his city's homegrown talent at the Pacific Music Awards, the following May.

THAT HEART attack. Brown was surprised at the media coverage his collapse attracted - though he wasn't aware of it at the time.

His reaction was: "I'm just a mayor of a local city - what is this?"

Everyone still asks how he's doing. He doesn't mind, as it gives him a chance to emphasise he's recovered.

"I was doorknocking in Kohimarama in the weekend and everyone knew me. Everyone asked how I was," he says.

"At the very least it's a conversation piece, and at the very best it gives me a chance to reiterate that I've had a miracle recovery. I've had a second chance at life."

Last week was two years since the attack, and for Inglis, it still seems a raw subject to talk about. But she says there was never any question he should step down from politics.

"To be really honest, it wasn't stress related," she says.

It was family history: Brown's mother died of a heart attack at 47.

"Because Len had no symptoms we never really did the checking up we should have," Inglis says.

THE HEALTH scare could have hurt Brown's chances with voters, says left-wing organiser and union boss Matt McCarten - but it hasn't panned out that way.

His low public profile outside Manukau could also have been an issue, but hasn't.

"Not projecting enough about himself at this stage has actually worked in his favour," columnist McCarten says. "I guess that, without taking anything away from Len, it's a bit like when [Dick] Hubbard ran - the biggest thing that he had was that he wasn't John Banks."

Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, who was touted as a mayoral candidate but is now running for a council seat, says it's hard to fault Brown's campaign so far.

"If there's a feeling that he's not getting his profile out there, folks out in voter land seem to be happy with what they see of Len," he says.

"While it might be said that Banks has a much higher profile, that's not necessarily helping John Banks, is it?"

But does that make Brown's a 'grey man'? Just a blank face that people are seeing what they want in?

McCarten: "Yes, and that's working for him."

Lee: "He's got a strong personality, and that's demonstrated by his determination to overcome his illness and aspire to one of the highest positions in the land. In his own way he has a lot of strength."

He's also been able to tap into the anti-Supercity feeling among many Aucklanders, who see Banks as an ally of Rodney Hide and one of the architects of the amalgamation.

A spokesman for Banks' campaign team agrees Brown's lower profile has allowed him to benefit. But they see things shifting their way as the campaign gets down to the issues.

"It's all very well to have rhetoric, but you need leadership to back it up, and as he gets more exposed, people will get the chance to decide."

MORE LIKELY than not, that decision will be between Brown and Banks. Sure, there's comedian Ewen Gilmour but it seems clear no other serious contenders will get in the race.

Lee says support from the left has solidified behind Len, and that's giving him confidence and strength.

Massey University senior lecturer and local government researcher Andy Asquith is also picking a two-man race, which he says leaves an "elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

"If it is a two-horse race, then it's Labour versus National."

Aucklanders traditionally don't like too much party politics in local affairs.

But Asquith says the scale of this election makes it inevitable the parties will play a major role.

And if that's true, then the city is showing its Labour colours so far. Polling last month by the Herald put Brown 11 percentage points ahead of Banks, taking 48.4 per cent compared to his opponent's 37 per cent.

By contrast, Banks' polling the month before had the Auckland mayor at a slight lead. The truth, says McCarten, is probably somewhere in the middle - allowing for the possibility that many of those who are ticking "anyone but John Banks" do not vote at all.

THE YEAR after the year of the heart attack, Brown celebrated his return to the Pacific Music Awards with a shouting, arm-waving rap which began: "My name is Brown, you're in my town, this place is jumping, my heart is pumping."

You can look up the clip on YouTube, though it's probably a relief to his campaign team that hardly anyone has.

For his part, Brown makes no apology for being willing to get up and belt out a tune, or a rhyme. "In the Pacific and Maori communities I do sing waiata and that's out of respect for the Pacific style."

The habit has brought accusations of different Lens for different audiences, but Brown shrugs that off. "What you see is what you get. I have fun in the community and engage in the community."

Brown doesn't seem easily embarrassed. Or rattled. Tell him that his public profile is dull and he throws his head back and laughs.

And then he comes about as close as he'll get to putting the boot into his opponent: "I've just done the hard yards, I haven't been glamming it up on TV or radio or developing some kind of multi-media personality. That's boring to the media."

What is his leadership style? "Inclusiveness, and the ability to get stuff done."

Brown would do well to say more things like "the ability to get stuff done" because he can be a bit waffly sometimes.

While Banks spits out sound-bites and talks in cast-iron absolutes, Brown is considered, measured, and likes to leave himself some wriggle-room.

And yes, that's all part of his inclusive approach. But the risk is that it plays out as wishy-washy. Brown's campaign manager Conor Roberts: "Len likes to talk about things in a lot of depth and get into the nuts and bolts of a question, which sometimes doesn't work on TV."

Brown says he's making an effort to be pithy, but at the same time: "What I do has worked, and I wouldn't want to change that".

Of course, there's still plenty more campaigning to come.

And Asquith, for one, wants to see voters learn a lot more about both candidates and their policies.

"Len Brown has got to get himself up to places like Warkworth and Wellsford, up to Helensville, so people can see that he's not just the man from Manukau," he says. "In a similar vein, John Banks has got to get himself into deepest darkest Manukau and say 'I'm not just a candidate for the affluent."

Brown agrees there's work to do. But what he does believe is that people make fast judgments about politicians - and that's exactly why it's good that the voters haven't already formed an opinion about him.

"People have no preconceptions about me."

Vital statistics

LEN BROWN
Age: 53
Weight: 75kg
Bio: Lawyer, former Manukau City councillor, current Manukau mayor
Family: Married with three children
Lives: Totara Park, Manukau
Lowlight: Collapsing from a heart attack on stage at the Pacific Music awards in 2008
Highlight: Taking the Manukau mayoralty in 2007 with a 14,000 vote majority
Slogan: "The mayor for all of Auckland"

JOHN BANKS
Age: 63
Weight: 80kg
Bio: Former National MP, Minister of Police, talk-back host and businessman, current Auckland City mayor
Family: Married with three children
Lives: Remuera, Auckland
Lowlight: Losing Auckland City mayoralty to Dick Hubbard in 2004
Highlight: Retaking the mayoralty after his comeback as the new "transmogrified" Banksie
Slogan: "Mayor for a greater Auckland"

- Herald on Sunday

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