Michele Hewitson Interview: Len Brown

By Michele Hewitson

A big learning-curve year has transformed Auckland's first super mayor from being a rapper to a statesman ... possibly

Len Brown is no longer the emotional mayor from Manukau slipping streetwise catchphrases into his conversation. Picture / Dean Purcell
Len Brown is no longer the emotional mayor from Manukau slipping streetwise catchphrases into his conversation. Picture / Dean Purcell

Something odd, or possibly not so odd given the weight of the Super mayoral robes, has happened to Len Brown.

Let's not get carried away (we used to be able to reliably leave that to him); he's hardly transmogrified. Perhaps he's more subdued. He is no longer the rapping mayor, for one thing. If he's keeping that previous incarnation hidden beneath his very smart mayoral suit, he's doing a reasonably good job. Still, I was keeping a wary eye out for any signs that he might break into that talk he thinks is down with the kids. You do suspect that guy lurks not very far beneath the surface, and amazingly, I almost miss him.

He was also the emotional mayor. I can't imagine the shiny-looking politician who met me, standing very upright and statesmanlike and calmly outside his office this week slapping himself about the face, for another thing. Nobody, least of all him, could miss that guy.

I have met him before, the first time to interview him a few days before he announced he was running. He bounced into his office and greeted me with a "whad up?" You might say he created a hard act to follow.

The second meeting was on my doorstep; he was out campaigning. "That was a dag!" A dag? He failed at first to recognise me, and fair enough. But why remind me of it? "It was dark in your house!" What? It is not dark in my house and even if it was, what a thing to say! "I think you were wearing dark glasses." No, there was no point trying to figure out how that could work. Perhaps the rose-tinted glasses he almost always wears were distorting his vision.

In his office he has a signed photograph: Him with Kenny Rogers. Does he like Kenny Rogers? "Well, yeah. I mean, he's an amazing artist." He also has a Tom Scott cartoon marking his election signed by the PM: "Well done and enjoy your time at the top." What does he make of that?

"I read nothing into it at all, Michele. Ha. I think he was being genuine." He got very excited about being able to hang art from the city gallery in his mayoral office. He asked for a Bruegel. "It was worth about 10 million or something like that and they said, 'no, not today'." Honestly, what's the point of being the Mayor of the Super City if he can't have a Bruegel? "Ha, ha. There are limits. I found out that there are limits."

He also has a collection of rugby balls, for kicking, I assumed. Do they have Murray McCully written on one and Steven Joyce on another? "Well, they might do!" He does kick the balls: outside on the grass in Aotea Square. What does he wear? "This!" he said, gesturing at his smart suit. "I don't go and change or anything." Doesn't he look ridiculous? "I don't know!" Is that seemly? "Yes, absolutely it is seemly. You don't get a lot of chance to relax in this job. I try to get loose and go for a walk."

He has dropped the "whad upping," at least with me (I was horrified last time), but he still occasionally talks like the old Len Brown, hence the "what a dag!" and the "get loose". He won the mayoralty a year ago last Sunday, an occasion which he failed to mark because he forgot, until somebody reminded him the next day.

I wondered - because how could you not given the dark night of the trains and the chaos of the opening night of the Rugby World Cup? - whether he'd had moments when he thought: Why the hell did I want this job? "Plenty of moments when I felt that I was being challenged like never before in my life." Much of what he loved about being mayor of Manukau, being able to spend a lot of time in the community, for example, is now more difficult to achieve. This is, or seems to be, a much more political job. So does he feel like more of a politician?

"Oh God, I hope not. I do think that the role of being a local body leader ... is very different from being a parliamentarian." He has said before that the media don't understand the difference, which is not very flattering, and he said it again to me. I said that, yes, he'd previously pointed out how stupid we journalists were and he said, "I'm not saying that, Michele." Yes he is. "Well, no, what I'm saying is that I just think you miss the point of local government."

That he can't see that he does call journalists a bit thick might make him either a bit thick himself, or very clever. That he says journalists don't understand local government might be evidence of his enormous confidence which, if you're not a fan, could be taken for arrogance.

Of course you'd have to have a lot of either, or both, to run for mayoralty in the first place. Really, he just doesn't want to "come across" as a politician because he says people tend to have a negative view of politicians. He likes some. He genuinely likes John Key on a personal and professional level. I'd been going on about McCully, which he mostly benignly ignored, and I said, later, that he can't like him. "I didn't say I like him. I just get on with him."

I'd been asking whether he had an ideological dislike of Nats (he says, by the way, that they don't have an ideological dislike of him), because surely he must. He's a Labour mayor. He certainly is not, he says, and of course he ran as an independent. But what, I wanted to know, had happened to his long-held Labour beliefs? They're part of his platform, he says, but "it is very hard to get Marxist about fixing footpaths". So, there you go. How stupid of me.

He is used to being loved, I think. There was a huge outpouring of what he might well call good vibes, after his 2008 heart attack, which you wouldn't wish on anyone but which wasn't at all a bad thing for his political career. He says we don't have to love our mayor but we do have to respect him. He used to go around telling people he loved them but he bellowed with laughter when I asked if he still did, so who knows? I'd say not. He's working at being a grown-up, statesmanlike mayor, according to me. Because what has happened to his signature rapping? Perhaps he's decided it's not dignified. He says that really he was only doing it "to have fun with the kids in the Manukau community and particularly with those Pacific and Maori kids who I think by and large thought it was pretty naff". He told me they loved it! "Well, they laughed! They thought it was hilarious."

Reduced naffness (we'll put aside that Kenny Rogers photo) might be a symptom of his being subdued. But is he? "I've had an extraordinary year and I think I've matured a lot personally ..." I asked for an example of his new-found maturity and he gave a very boring answer about having to broaden his strategic and policy outlook. But I would say it was a boring answer. I'm too stupid to understand local government. I did ask him a patsy question about what he'd changed and he said something about a Metro billboard which reads, he thinks: Love This City. This demonstrates our new-felt passion for the city. He also told me about a new "innovation hub" at Wynyard Quarter where people with ideas will "cluster". Does that mean they have a cup of coffee? "They build business, they do research and development." Oh, they have a meeting. I do give him credit for remaining resolutely good-humoured when teased for talking local government-ese. I was testing his temper.

Much more interesting than clusters, to me and not quite as interesting to him, was whether he'd hit himself about the face over anything in the past year. "Ha, ha, ha. I learnt a lot from that experience." Presumably he learnt that if you hit yourself about the face on television you look like a mad man. He says he's a fast learner. He was appalled when I asked if he'd become a different person. "Of course not!"

He has certainly got sterner about being interviewed. He is now perceptively unenthusiastic about being asked about his Catholic faith and whether he still prays in the mayoral office. He does; he says Christians do pray, anywhere. He told me last time that he believes abortion is a woman's choice, and told me on the doorstep that this had caused some interesting debate. I said I still didn't know how he could be a devout and practising Catholic and hold the views he does on abortion. He said he didn't think we'd return to that particular subject.

He wasn't at all shirty about this, just firm, but I had some ideas about his temper. He has got distinctly shirty with some journalists over trains, and promises about taking them. He got snippy with Marcus Lush who asked why his driver drove the mayoral car alongside the train (on the motorway, obviously) carrying the mayor. He said "I'll do what I will", which made him sound cross and arrogant. He says he doesn't think he has a bad temper - he appeared flabbergasted to be asked - and that what he can be is assertive, and loud, oh and short and blunt. He sounded bad-tempered to me. He asked for and got a copy of the Tui billboard: "Hey, I saw Len Brown on the train today. Yeah, right." It hangs in his staff's office. But why did he think that was funny but didn't find being asked about it funny? "Oh, I just felt ... I mean sometimes the media can be a bit precious."

Right, so thick and precious. That is quite clever, on reflection. It probably plays reasonably well with other politicians and his public.

Of course the real reason I thought he might be a bit damped down (and shirty) is the trains, again. And that RWC opening night and the subsequent riding rough-shod over him by McCully who announced that the Government was taking control of a larger area of the waterfront - before telling the mayor. He must, I said, have been humiliated; he was shafted. I asked this a number of ways but the assertive, blunt and short answer is that no, he is not humiliated or shafted. He answered like a politician and I can hardly complain because I insisted that he is a politician.

He threatened to appear on my doorstep again when he begins campaigning for a second term. "You can have me in for a cup of tea if you like." I could. Or I could fail to recognise him which, by then, is a distinct possibility.

- NZ Herald

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