Auckland will have a new mayor in October but who it will be and what it means for the city is unclear.
What is clear is the mayoral contest is developing into a dogfight and Auckland looks set to have its first Pasifika, a woman or businessman wearing the chains of office.
With nominations not closing until August 12, the main contenders are Manukau councillor Efeso Collins, endorsed by Labour and the Greens; Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck, endorsed by National's de facto ticket Communities and Residents; restaurateur Leo Molloy; businessman and former Far North Mayor Wayne Brown; and Craig Lord, who came third in 2019. All are standing as independents but only Molloy, Brown and Lord are truly independent.
None of the candidates is in the same league as Phil Goff or his predecessor Len Brown, leading one political insider to call it "the battle of the tallest dwarf".
There has been chatter about former National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett, but after being approached over the summer by a number of people and thinking things over she decided against running.
Bennett helped National's MP for Whangaparāoa, Mark Mitchell, when he briefly looked at standing for the mayoralty last year and would have been a strong contender.
Not only does she have the skills and political smarts for the job, but the proud Westie would have brought pizazz to the city as it looks to recover from the pandemic. You have to go back to Dame Cath Tizard — Mayor 1983-1990 and NZ's first female Governor-General — to find the city's last popular mayor.
Former Labour leader David Shearer was also sounded out. But in an interview with the Listener magazine after returning as the UN head of mission in beleaguered South Sudan, the aid worker expressed more enthusiasm about flying to the Caribbean to buy a yacht than dodging bullets at City Hall.
At the end of two terms, Goff will become New Zealand's next High Commissioner to the UK after being tipped last year to become NZ Ambassador to the United States.
As the Herald's senior political correspondent Audrey Young said, as a former foreign minister, trade minister and defence minister, Goff is well placed to manage the relationship with Britain as it seeks greater engagement internationally since leaving the European Union.
The veteran politician is leaving at a particularly challenging time. Auckland Council is emerging from the ravages of Covid-19 with its finances in a perilous state, and the picture at Auckland Transport is equally dire with money running out to run public transport.
As mayor, Goff has been true to form — diligent and hard-working, on top of issues, he practised a managerial style and delivered incremental change. He was never going to set the world on fire, but he found new income streams to broaden the council balance sheet, forged a coalition of councillors across party lines, achieved strong backing for his budgets and increased spending on infrastructure.
A key to his success has been the appointment of two National Party members, his deputy of six years, Bill Cashmore, and Desley Simpson, wife of National Party president Peter Goodfellow, who chairs the finance committee.
Goff has also been ruthless at times, no more so than addressing the workplace safety and productivity issues at Ports of Auckland, which claimed the scalps of chief executive Tony Gibson and chairman Bill Osborne.
Mayor of Auckland is a complex and challenging role and is frequently referred to as the biggest political job behind the Prime Minister.
It comes with the huge responsibility of managing an annual budget of just under $8 billion while tempered by the financial realities that constrain council spending. There's a powerful bureaucracy and four council-controlled organisations (CCOs) to keep in line, diverse communities of interest and working with the central government. Distractions occur most days and thorny issues, like Auckland's unresolved stadium strategy, drag on for years.
Goff told Project Auckland if any of the mayoral candidates want to do more than the status quo they need to have a vision of what the city might be and an ability to work with councillors across party lines.
"If you can't build relationships, if you can't represent the whole of your city then it's not the right job for you," he said.
With voting in the postal ballot still five months away, Collins is the early favourite. He's the only serious candidate on the left and the right is splintering.
Labour insiders believe Collins should win the south and west and get enough votes elsewhere, but this election better suits the right is given growing dissatisfaction with the council and Auckland Transport and Labour's fall in the polls.
Collins is charismatic, a great orator and draws on his roots as the "Samoan boy from Otara". He's got the talent to burn, regularly appears on television and played a skilful game to stare down North Shore councillor Richard Hills and Goff to get the nod from Labour.
Hills is a party darling and wanted to stand for the mayoralty. Goff wanted Hills. But in an act of willpower, Collins made it known he was standing with or without the backing of Labour. In the end, Hills pulled out, citing the birth of his first child.
That left Labour with no choice but to endorse Collins, despite hardly anyone in the party, including the Pasifika caucus, liking him, according to party sources.
By opposing things like Goff's regional fuel tax and criticising the Government's handling of the vaccine rollout in South Auckland, Collins has the reputation of not being a team player. Collins' counter-argument is robust and honest conversations should be encouraged in local government.
As a councillor, Collins has a poor attendance record at meetings and in the words of one colleague is "incredibly intelligent but prone to laziness".
Policywise, Collins is developing a progressive programme that will be expensive and difficult to implement. His first big policy was free public transport, which Labour has moved some way towards with half-price fares for three months and could make further announcements in May's Budget.
Collins is also focused on housing and climate change and supports the principle of removing curbside parking for bus and cycle lanes. He is not shying away from higher rates to increase investment in the city.
In the past Collins has spoken out against gay marriage and abortion, but said they reflected a strict church upbringing, acknowledged they hurt people and are no longer his views.
People who have worked in political roles at the council have mixed feelings about Collins.
One is confident of Collins' abilities, saying he would be much more of a public face mayor than Goff. First, though, he had to overcome the baggage that comes with being the 'council candidate' and not fall into the trap of pandering to vested interests, the person said.
A second said Collins does not have the substance or the talent for the job, nor has he demonstrated any ability to tackle difficult issues.
"If Efeso becomes mayor, chief executive Jim Stabback will become mayor because he does not have the capability or interest in running the city and doing the hard yards.
"You need to have a whole lot of intellectual heft to process all of the shit the bureaucracy throws at you and that is when they are working with you. God forbid when they are not working with you," they said.
It is still early days for Collins and the other candidates, whose focus is on building support, name recognition, fundraising and developing policy.
The first candidate out of the blocks was Molloy, the loud, brash and successful owner of Headquarters, a bar and restaurant at the Viaduct Basin on Auckland's waterfront.
Molloy is the wild joker in the pack, running a high-energy campaign focused on the disgruntled vote and raising his profile. He is well-funded with a large campaign bus wrapped in campaign colours and a large photograph of himself.
He promises to shine a light on "reckless spending", scrap the Regional Fuel Tax, trial free public transport for a year and introduce green hydrogen for public transport.
Aucklanders should not incur any further rate increases, but rates would be linked to council inflation, which happens to be higher than the CPI.
Despite his business acumen, infectious character and intellect that people under-estimate, Molloy has his flaws, including a habit of denigrating people and being a magnet for controversy.
Last year he was convicted for breaching a court suppression order when he named Grace Millane's murderer online. In March this year, Molloy suggested using sprinklers to deter rough sleepers in the city. His minders have a huge job keeping him on message and out of trouble.
Molloy keeps company with an array of well-known faces around town, including Destiny Church's Brian and Hannah Tamaki. Former National leader Judith Collins and John Banks attended his supporter's launch, as did All Black legend Kevan Mealamu and Dave "Brown Buttabean" Letele, a boxer turned healthy living guru and finalist in this year's Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year. Molloy is a generous supporter of Letele's programmes.
Questions remain. Can Molloy hold it together for the next six months or will the bubble burst? Does he have what it takes to be mayor of 1.7 million people or is he just Leo of Leoland? Could he build a working majority around the council table? If he wins, will he be a bull in a china shop?
Someone who knows Molloy said he is highly intelligent and if his brain was used in a positive way he could make a real difference.
"However, whatever he does he historically and inevitably heads down a road to self-destruction. God help us if he wears the chains of office."
One experienced election campaigner said voters want someone they think is competent, reliable and stable and anyone coming across as unreliable or unstable gets punished.
The safe, reliable pair of hands could be Viv Beck, chief executive of Heart of the City, who is married to former National MP Paul Quinn but not a member of any political party.
She has built a profile since 2015 as a champion for the central city and has not been afraid to challenge the local and central government on issues, particularly compensation for business owners whose lives and livelihoods have been decimated by the City Rail Link construction works.
Beck's platform is pro-business with a distinct National Party flavour. Like the Nats, she wants to scrap the regional fuel tax and replace it with a new funding model. She is tough on crime, wants better mental health services and believes light rail is unaffordable.
The 62-year-old has the endorsement of Communities and Residents, but that is not necessarily a good thing. This is the fifth Super City election for C & R and they have failed spectacularly when it comes to the mayoralty.
"Viv Beck is not even at Viv Crone's level," said one political insider, referring to C & R's 2016 candidate who lost to Goff by more than 70,000 votes.
Said another source: "Viv likes to wear bright colours but there is nothing about her that leaps to life."
Beck's biggest challenge is shaking off her image as the face of the "central city", a dirty word in many voters' minds, and raising her profile across Auckland.
It's not known when Beck will start campaigning full time. She has promised to step down from her ratepayer-funded job once a recovery plan is in place for the central city, whenever that is.
So far, Beck's campaign has been sleepy and the momentum is with Molloy, who has more hunger for the job than any of the other candidates.
If Beck can present as the moderate, centre-right candidate there are plenty of votes in blue-ribbon areas like Orakei, the wealthy inner-city suburbs and the North Shore coastal belt to be won. Will it be enough? Probably not.
Wayne Brown faces an even bigger mountain to climb. He has no public profile in Auckland outside of business circles but is prepared to spend $500,000 to become mayor.
It costs several hundred thousand dollars to run a serious campaign that stretches from the Bombay Hills to the north of Wellsford, but it's only one part of an exhaustive job interview to become mayor. John Tamihere spent $500,000 on his campaign in 2019 and lost to Phil Goff by 100,000 votes.
In his favour, Brown has local government experience as mayor of the Far North from 2007 to 2013. He did, however, get into strife when the Auditor-General criticised him for blurring the lines between his elected role and his commercial interests — a charge he has always denied.
Brown wants to be known as Mr Fix-it, saying he was brought in as chair of Vector to restore power to the central city after five weeks of blackouts in 1998 and built the new $500m Auckland City Hospital on time and on a budget in the early 2000s as chair of the Auckland District Health Board.
As an infrastructure engineer, Brown said when it comes to big projects "I know this stuff" and will bring a sense of urgency to get things done. He wants to take on the "bureaucratic monster" that is Auckland Transport and replace the boards of the council-controlled organisations.
After proposing shifting council-owned Ports of Auckland as head of a task force set up by the Government in 2017, Brown wants the company to deliver $200m a year in rates and a dividend of $200m.
It hasn't gone unnoticed in National circles that two ringleaders in Todd Muller's disastrous leadership coup — Tim Hurdle and Matthew Hooton — have links to Brown's campaign.
Craig Lord is the guy who came third in the mayoral contest in 2019, polling a respectable 30,000 votes.
The former engineer and freelance media operator is active on social media with nearly 8000 followers on Facebook. He tends to zero in on local issues like passenger trains to Huapai and promises a "vote for change" will tackle frivolous spending, define core services and bring transparency.
It's hard to see Lord being a serious contender — he spent $25,000 in 2019 compared to $440,000 by Goff and $500,000 by Tamihere — but could be a kingmaker.
If the election is tight and Lord polls about 30,000 votes again, that could influence whoever becomes the third Mayor of the Super City.
• Bernard Orsman is the Herald's Super City reporter