Mike Lee is many things. Seafarer. Conservationist. Author. Train lover. And now ex-politician.
Two weeks ago Lee lost the Waitemata and Gulf ward seat on Auckland Council to Pippa Coom by 319 votes, ending a legendary career stretching back to 1992.
He's naturally disappointed but not bitter, and relieved. It's easy to see why. The view from his cedar-clad home on Waiheke Island is stunning. The sea is swirling in the scrawly weather, but it's still possible to see the Coromandel Peninsula and the outline of Little Barrier Island. The long expanse of Onetangi Beach barren of human life.
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Lee has lived on and off on the island since 1979. He grew up in Wellington and his mother, an Aucklander - "living in exile" - instilled in him the Auckland dream of sitting under pohutukawa trees having picnics when a bitterly cold southerly was howling through Cook Strait.
The dream lured Lee to Auckland, and now the 70-year-old can enjoy his adopted home away from politics with his Chinese-born wife Jenny, whose given name is Jian Hua. She's a talented artist studying botanical art by correspondence at a British institution. Lee's tools and gear have been banished from the garage, which has been turned into an art studio and a gallery with a polished concrete floor and stark white walls.
The couple met at the John Young Dance Studio in the city in 1998 and got married in 2003. Lee has two daughters from a previous marriage and seven grandchildren.
Theirs is a yin-yang relationship, Jenny bringing a light swirl to Lee's strong character. To relax, the couple enjoy running on Onetangi beach.
"I will also be quietly working writing and she will be painting. It is something to look forward to rather than coming back all stressed from a not necessarily pleasant day on Auckland Council," says Lee.
On the back lawn is a working kayak for getting around little islands in the Hauraki Gulf to count birds and replenish bait stations, which Lee plans to turn into a fishing kayak.
"I've been told if you come in on the incoming tide and use tua tua as bait you are pretty sure of success. If so, I will be out there all the time," he says.
Lee has another book in mind. His first book, Navigators and Naturalists, was about the unappreciated role of French navigators in the scientific discovery of New Zealand, the Pacific and Southern Ocean.
Another little-known fact about Lee is he holds a master degree in biological science and spends a lot of time trapping rats and other rodents on islands in gulf.
He was one of 20 people evacuated during a rat eradication programme from a low-lying French Polynesian islet when a cyclone struck in 2010. He had to leave behind an autobiography of Winston Churchill, another on Adolf Hitler and a seafaring novel.
The ocean has played a big part in Lee's life. His father was a shipwright and two oil paintings by the maritime artist Frank Barnes of ships his father worked on, take pride of place in his lounge.
At 22, Lee went to sea and became a radio officer, first travelling to the Cook Islands and Niue, and later going around the world "never knowing where you were going next until the morse code telegram came in". He once survived a hurricane in the North Atlantic, the only time he was frightened at sea.
After 20 years at sea, and married to former Alliance MP Sandra Lee at the time, Lee got fired up by Ruth Richardson's "Mother of all budgets" in 1991 and was elected to the Auckland Regional Council in 1992 on a wave of resistance to the economic reforms known as "Ruthanasia".
Not long after being elected, he handcuffed himself to a dredge to protest against the dumping of sludge in the Hauraki Gulf and got arrested.
It was a lively and interesting time at the ARC. Keith Hay, a former member of the Labour Party, conservative Christian and homebuilder, saw something in the political newbie.
"If you are going to get a workhorse, get the wildest one and train him up and you will get years and years out of him, referring to me," recounts Lee.
And so the wild horse of Auckland was born.
The years 1992 to 2010 were the heydays of Lee's political career, the last six years as chairman.
ARC colleagues and Peter Winder, who was chief executive at the time Lee was chairman, have strong admiration for the regional leadership and legacy he left.
He brought his own style, said Winder, but unlike many local body politicians he was determined to achieve things and leave a legacy. Yes, he could be difficult to work with, but he got into the thick of battle, worked across the full range of political views and built consensus.
Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett was Lee's deputy for three years on the ARC and says it was a time of "co-operation, goodwill and cohesion ... I don't think we had a split decision on anything in that last term".
Joel Cayford is one regional councillor who clashed regularly with Lee, a politician, he says, who acted from the heart with emotion and passion but sometimes against facts or a more balanced view.
"He loved trains. He loved ships. He loved regional parks," said Cayford.
The first power handed to Lee came in 1992 when Phil Warren made him chair of parks and within three years 1340ha of land was acquired for regional parks, including new coastal parks at Whakanewha on Waiheke Island and Duder regional park near Maraetai.
All up, 12 new regional parks were added to the network while Lee was on the ARC, he worked to achieve the Tawharanui marine reserve that opened in 2011 and oversaw major expansions of the Waitakere and Hunua parklands.
"You came home from work and felt you had really achieved something permanent," he says.
Like the sea and conservation - his father was keen on native fauna and flora - his early years in Wellington also bred a passion for trams, which ran outside the front door of the family home in central Te Aro.
Hence his love of trains to this day and, arguably, his biggest legacy. Lee was not responsible for inaugurating the Britomart Transport Station, that honour goes to Christine Fletcher, but his list of achievements is long and the benefits enduring.
For several years, Lee was locked in a battle with the Clark Labour Government, and Finance Minister Michael Cullen in particular, to gain control, double track and electrify the rail network. His big regret was Labour stopping short of electrifying rail to Pukekohe.
Lee says he was considered something of a nutter for wanting to re-open the Onehunga branch line, but when it did open thousands of ordinary people turned up - "it was like something out of Gandhi".
The City Rail Link the HOP public transport card started under Lee, he helped save the Overlander train service between Wellington and Auckland and remains a staunch advocate to run trains from the city to the airport. On Auckland Council, he opened a new train station for Parnell featuring Newmarket Station's old 1908 building. He's an avid believer in preserving the city's dwindling heritage.
For many Aucklanders, Lee will be remembered for putting the skids on a waterfront stadium after Labour's Trevor Mallard tabled a blank cheque in 2006 and gave local politicians two weeks to say yay or nay.
Lee said the offer was taken extremely seriously because the ARC - which had recently secured full ownership of the Ports of Auckland - and the public had a critical stake in the matter.
"I started off quite liking the idea because I always admired the Wellington waterfront stadium," said Lee, who along with the rest of the council voted unanimously to reject the stadium after concluding it did not stack up.
"It was a stadium in the harbour itself, an extremely radical concept which a lot of people didn't like because of the environmental impact. It would damage the public investment in Ports of Auckland and on the other hand there was a perfectly good stadium with enormous tradition and mana in Eden Park."
If the Auckland Regional Council represented the pinnacle of Lee's career, Auckland Council has surely been the low point.
Regional councillor Sandra Coney followed Lee to the Super City in 2010 where another ARC project, the first stage of Wynyard Quarter, opened months later to huge public acclaim. Did Lee or the ARC receive any credit? No.
The way Coney puts it, she and Lee experienced a desire to expunge the existence of the ARC and discovered how deeply hated the regional council was over principled stands on land development and protection of the environment.
Coney, who retired from Auckland Council after one term, believes old habits from the territorial councils have contributed to the A Team and B Team culture and leadership not being distributed in a way that enables councillors to play to their strengths.
As a regional leader, Lee was open to the concept of the Super City, but has turned into one of its biggest critics, echoing the view of Coney and saying it has become one big city council at the expense of regional issues like parks and the environment.
He cites Queens Wharf, purchased by the ARC and Government to become the "people's wharf", which, he says, has become urbanised with cars and tacky buildings instead of a place where people could get up close to ships and connect to the sea.
Critics of Lee accuse him of becoming bitter and sullen, taking a negative view to progress and firing personalised potshots at Phil Goff.
Lee refutes the accusations, saying when Goff put up something that was positive, like the living wage, he would support him but on issues, like a bed tax that only applies to part of the city, it's not fair.
Is he bitter? "I was never bitter, but I was certainly resistant, but only to bad policies."
Mike Lee's legacy
• Twelve regional parks added during his time on the ARC
• Double tracking/electrification of Auckland rail network
• Electric trains for the city
• Started work on the City Rail Link and HOP card
• Wynyard Quarter waterfront development
• Opened Queens Wharf to the public
• Brought Ports of Auckland under full public ownership
• Stopped waterfront stadium
Mike Lee on:
• Len Brown
A loveable rascal who had a god-given talent to make a rousing speech on just about anything. Let's talk about term one. He was a very good mayor for Auckland. In some respects we were rivals, but if I walked past Len Brown in the council chamber I would touch him on the shoulder and he would do the same.
• Phil Goff
On the face of it he's quite an engaging person but obviously he harbours pretty strong feelings against people and he has no time at all for me. I think he is quite a calculating person, a secretive person and not always an honest person.
• Helen Clark
I hit if off with Aunty Helen. I genuinely liked and admired her and she was a very good communicator. I thought she was great to work with.
• Michael Cullen
At the start he didn't like me, we had a mixed relationship. He was a very bright guy, a good Minister of Finance, it took a while for him to get over his dislike for Auckland, but in the end he did the right thing by Auckland.
• Pippa Coom
Her only politics I can see has been a focus on cycling, but her advocacy of cycleways against public objections has meant a lot of people don't support her. Pippa is quite a powerful person and very successful at working with the bureaucracy.