No Plan B for Botany's young gun

Jami-Lee Ross with his number one fan, grandmother Sharron Martin. Photo / Greg Bowker
Jami-Lee Ross with his number one fan, grandmother Sharron Martin. Photo / Greg Bowker

New Zealand's next MP will almost certainly be a 25-year-old career politician who has never met his father.

Jami-Lee Ross is National's candidate in its super-safe Botany seat.

He beat celebrity contender Maggie Barry in the party battle to succeed Pansy Wong, and his momentum seems likely to carry him successfully past the March 5 by-election.

Wong, who resigned under pressure after bruising Labour attacks on her spending, won the seat in 2008 by more than 10,000 votes.

Ross says you shouldn't read too much into National's crunching majority. A few "Ross for Botany" billboards have gone up, reminding voters there is a ballot next month. The candidate says more will be erected this weekend.

"By-elections are unusual beasts," remarks Ross. "Turnouts are often low, they can sometimes go against the Government. We're not taking anything for granted."

So just who is the young conservative on the cusp of what could be a lifetime job in national politics?

First of all, there's that name. Explains Ross: "When I was about to be born they [his parents] didn't know whether I would be a boy or girl. They seemed to like it."

He is used to taunts about the moniker. Bloggers seem to relish variations such as "David Lee Roth" and the nastier "Slimey Lee Ross".

The candidate shrugs: "I'm sure people will make fun of it."

His mother was 18 when Ross was born, and "not in the best space to raise a child". So his grandmother, Sharron Martin, took on the task, raising the boy in a modest Papatoetoe home before shifting to Pakuranga, where Ross, who loved swimming, was closer to a good pool.

The pair remain close, with Martin handing out flyers for her grandson when Ross, then 18, first campaigned to get elected to Manukau City Council.

Ross says he has a good relationship with his mother, Lisa Helmling, but his father has never been in his life. Ross is Ngati Porou from his father's side, though he says he knows little of his whakapapa, his history and heritage: "I'm sure one day I'll do that."

Ross boarded at Dilworth School, the Auckland college which helps pupils from struggling families. Three old boys have gone on to become MPs - Harry Lapwood, who did a term as Tourism Minister in the mid-1970s, former Prime Minister Mike Moore and Labour Cabinet Minister Michael Bassett.

What the three have in common is political longevity. Ex-military man Lapwood served 18 years, historian Bassett managed 15, while Moore, now our man in Washington, chalked up 24 years.

The Botany boy wants to be the fourth.

By his own admission Ross was not a diligent student.

"I didn't finish school. I thought I could do it all by myself." From Dilworth he went back out east, to Pakuranga College. At 16 he quit classrooms for good and got a job as a lifeguard at the Lloyd Elsmore swimming complex. He also took to flying, heading out to Ardmore, where he chalked up the hours to get a private pilot's licence.

Ross says the perspective from a Cessna 172 is always special. But he finds the $250-an-hour aircraft hire too steep to indulge his fancy.

He regrets leaving school without formal qualifications. When he meets young people, he says he encourages them to make the most of education. For the past few years, Ross has been studying politics and economics and Auckland University.

In 2004, the teenaged Ross won his first political contest, and became, at 18, a Manukau City councillor. His strategy for success was to knock on 5000 doors in the Howick ward and pitch the simple theme of giving young people a voice. By this time he was a National Party member and moved into the orbit of Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson, working part-time as the MP's electorate agent, a taxpayer-funded job dealing with constituents and their problems. The MP became his mentor.

At Manukau, Ross learned to play hard-ball politics, which last year drew him into conflict with Len Brown. At the time Manukau's centre-left mayor was stepping up his campaign for the Super City mayoralty. Ross and Dick Quax, another centre-right Manukau c0ouncillor, went after Brown, attacking the mayor's use of a council-issued credit card.

A chastened Brown repaid some money, including $59 for a Christmas ham. Ross says he was doing no more than ensuring accountability for ratepayers and insisting that the council's own credit card rules were followed.

"I don't agree with wasting money. I call myself a fiscal conservative. I also believe you spend ratepayers' or taxpayers' money as efficiently as possible. All I was doing was holding people to account."

Then Ross became a target when figures issued under the Official Information Act revealed him to be a stickler for claiming expenses, including $14 for driving to an Anzac Day ceremony in 2008 when he was representing the council.

Ross concedes the claim was an error of judgment: "You learn from your mistakes." He noted that during last year's Super City campaign, Labour went through his background "with a fine-tooth comb. They came up with $14. It was within the rules but embarrassing ... I'd say that's pretty clean though."

Says Brown: "We would prefer not to lose a councillor so soon after the inauguration of the new council. However after having worked with Jami-Lee for a number of years, I know he will continue to be a strong advocate for his community, whether it is here or in Wellington."

Council records indicate Ross was a diligent councillor, and barely missed a meeting. He appears to work hard at the local level.

In May 2008, Ross married Lucy Schwaner, a police fingerprint analyst. She, too, is a politician, winning a place on the Howick local board last year. The couple met when Schwaner, who was studying archaeology, wanted to learn about Howick's heritage. She was sent to Ross, who was on the community board, in search of documents. "I just kept finding excuses to keep meeting up with her and it went from there."

The couple have no children. Ross says his wife is prepared for his pitch for the bigger political stage: "She knows what it takes."

Morrin Cooper, mayor of Howick for 15 years, has watched Ross' career unfold. He expects the ambitious candidate to succeed. Cooper wondered whether Ross had enough life lessons beyond council chambers but felt he would land on his feet: "He's a builder, not a termite."

Ross says he taking nothing for granted in his bid for Botany, and is pitching a message of sound economic management, law and order and infrastructure investment - all, of course, under John Key's handling.

But he does not contemplate any outcome but the right one for him: "I never have a plan B. I'm just going to work as hard as I can to succeed."

- NZ Herald

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