Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Outsider all business in race to lead Supercity

John Palino and fiancee Rose Li at home in their slick Kohimarama apartment. Photo / Michael Craig
John Palino and fiancee Rose Li at home in their slick Kohimarama apartment. Photo / Michael Craig

John Palino, restaurateur, businessman, actor and suave Auckland mayoral candidate is busy in the kitchen of his smart, two-bedroom apartment.

He is cooking up his favourite meal of Italian meatballs and spaghetti, a recipe handed down from his mother. He has carefully rolled up his sleeves so no stray spatters of tomato sauce soil his crisp, white, open-neck business shirt.

And ever-conscious of his smooth image, he also nips back and forward to a large mirror in the living room to make sure his well-groomed silver locks are in place, in-between being photographed.

Raised in a large Italian family in New York, Palino appears keen to show potential supporters he is a hands-on operator and not just a talking head.

The slick-talking 53-year-old may lack experience in the cut-throat political arena but believes his no-nonsense approach will be a winner with ordinary Aucklanders.

"I am not career politician but I am far from being politically naive," he says while tipping a large handful of pasta into a pan of boiling water.

"I'm a businessman and although Auckland is not a business, that is how the city should be run."

Palino says his spells living in New York, Los Angeles and New Jersey have taught him a lot about transportation and intensification in inner cities. These are issues that will continue to be important to Auckland as the city grows.

"I hope people will see me as being a breath of fresh air," he says.

"The council is a mess and there is a toxic culture and bullying in there. The first thing I would do is remove the secrecy surrounding the decision-making processes and introduce complete transparency.

"We need to get rid of a lot of the present layers of bureaucracy and give the people of Auckland a voice again. I would empower councillors so they can be leaders and manage their own communities, rather than decisions being made centrally behind closed doors."

Palino, who describes his political position as right-of-centre, announced his candidacy for the mayoralty in May.

His credentials are unusual for a wannabe politician. He started Auckland restaurants including Starks at the Civic Theatre and Sal Rose in Mt Albert. He had also worked in Beverly Hills and Manhattan.

He has sold his eateries but remains a director of hospitality and investment at Palino Enterprises, and recently designed a sizeable shopping mall and marketplace in Connecticut.

He has also dished out advice to struggling restaurants in his TV3 show The Kitchen Job, and has acting credits including a brief stint on Shortland Street, small roles in Hercules and Xena, and has filmed some television ads.

As he holds court in his compact but tastefully furnished flat, there would appear to be no end to his versatility.

Unlike the multimillion-dollar campaign machine mobilised by the incumbent Len Brown, Palino insists he has been largely funding his own bid for the mayoralty.

He has also enlisted political heavyweight John Slater, a battle-hardened former president of the National Party, as his campaign manager. And he says he has been receiving advice from veteran National Minister Maurice Williamson, who pulled out of the mayoral race earlier in the year. Williamson declined to comment.

Palino plays down any close ties with National but hints the party would like to see a right-of-centre face in the Auckland mayoral hotseat. "National does not publicly support local politics but behind the scenes they do. They want someone new in there but they won't talk about it."

Campaign warhorse Slater got involved with Palino after seeing similarities with another of his once-unknown political proteges, Prime Minister John Key.

"I remember when John Key first came to see me for a chat many years ago," Slater says. "He did not have a lot of political experience at the time either, but I persuaded him to give it a try.

"Like John Key, John Palino has had success in his own business career and has made a lot of money. I could see the same sort of potential in him as I did in John Key."

Despite Palino being a political virgin, Slater believes he could follow Key to success.

"I wouldn't have backed him if I didn't think he could win," Slater explains. "He would turn the council upside-down.

"The feedback we have been getting from centre-right people in places like the North Shore and Howick is fantastic. He is making a real impact and gaining a lot of support."

Back in his apartment, Palino, who moved to New Zealand 17 years ago, is carefully preparing the dining table for his fiancee Rose Li, who is coming in from work.

He is also waxing lyrical about his plans to bring down rates, improve transportation and build a modern city hub in Manukau from scratch to cope with an ever-expanding urban population.

However, he is dismissive of suggestions that he is very wealthy and brushes off reports that he has ploughed between $500,000 and $1 million of his own cash into funding his campaign.

Although Palino's pad is in desirable Kohimarama, and boasts a sought-after beach view from the balcony, the place he has called home for four years is rented. And his flash-looking 2-litre Audi A4 which is parked outside might have all the bells and whistles, but it is not showroom-new.

"I have done well in business but I can't afford to be funding my mayoral bid with huge amounts of money," he insists.

He reveals he has attracted a number of small backers but declines to say who they are - and he is looking for more financial support.

"It is difficult to raise decent amounts of money now because any contributions of more than $1500 have to be declared," he says.

"People don't want the fact they might be donors to be made public knowledge, in case their candidate loses and their business suffers as a result."

Palino is looking to buy a house in Auckland before he marries Li, who is 20 years his junior, next year. And that will require funds too, he says. He is also looking forward to starting a family.

"When I left university I told my father I wanted to follow him into the restaurant business, and he told me not to or I would never get married.

"I then said I wanted to be an actor and he told me 'no', and to go ahead with the restaurants. In the end I did both. Now that I am getting married, I definitely want kids."

On Tuesday evening, Palino's fiancee Li, of Chinese descent, enjoys the rare pleasure of having a meal cooked for her - she has taken over in the kitchen for the past few months while her partner concentrates on his campaign.

"I don't see John very often these days, only when he eats," she says. "When he eats, I'm happy and I love cooking for him. He has taught me a lot about Italian dishes. He is a good teacher."

Earlier in the day, Palino invited the Herald on Sunday along to watch him renovate a bathroom at a friend's house on the Te Atatu peninsula. Again, he seemed keen to show he is prepared to get his hands dirty to get things done.

Decked out in denims, a polo shirt and trainers and wielding a drill and measuring tape, he looks pretty much like any other tradie at work.

But on closer inspection, the spotless designer jeans hint at a higher calling, even if his workmanship is impressive.

Palino says he learned how to fix everything from plumbing to electrics while helping out at his father's restaurants in New York. As a result, he says he would rather do things himself than pay for help.

This is an attitude he plans to use when cutting costs at Auckland Council, if he gets elected.

"The money that is wasted on consultants and bureaucracy is incredible," he says. "Auckland Council has an annual payroll of about $650 million, and that doesn't include fees for consultants and temps from agencies. They spend money like water.

"Immediate cuts I would make would reduce that payroll by 5 per cent, meaning a reduction of 2.6 per cent on people's rates. I will keep rates below inflation."

Palino is aghast at the inefficiency of some of Auckland's megabucks transport networks.

"I mean, fortunes were spent building bus lanes alongside the motorway to the North Shore but they didn't build nearly enough carparks to go with them for park-and-ride commuters. Decisions like that just don't make sense. It is time we started doing things properly."

He insists he is not against a proposed inner-city rail loop in principle, but fears it will not be properly thought out by the current regime.

And he wants to scrap plans to build high-rises in Auckland suburbs, and instead build a new city in Manukau. "There are a lot of people over the age of 50 in places like Takapuna, which would be in line for major redevelopment. But these people will not want to live on a building site and many will soon move out.

"It would make much more sense to construct a new and innovative city that would be the envy of the world, and that is near to the airport and main highways."

As myself and photographer Michael Craig prepare to leave, Palino - ever the charming host - hands us each a generous doggie bag filled with his signature meatballs.

And before we get to the front door he reveals his bow has yet another string: he also happens to be a budding music impresario.

This weekend he was in the studio recording a tune penned by a friend, called Song For Auckland, to coincide with his campaign.

He even claims the song is a bit like We Are The World - the 1985 smash-hit charity single recorded by supergroup USA for Africa and written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. Palino is filming a video for it this week and it will soon be viewable on his website.

"I don't actually sing on it but it is a really beautiful song that represents and reflects all the many cultures found in Auckland," he says. "This is something which we should all be embracing and I just thought it would be a nice thing to do."

For the record, the meatballs were first-class.

- Herald on Sunday

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