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Len Brown is a student of politics and one of his favourite lines is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's catch-cry "sweat the small stuff".

It's a quote which inspired his approach to the teenage gang problem in Manukau and led to measures such as zero tolerance for tagging and tinny houses.

He has also applied it to the small print on council issues - he is famous for his attention to detail.

But it was a lack of attention to the small matter of receipts for his council credit card spending which stalled the momentum he was gaining in his bid for the Super City mayoralty.

A month ago, it seemed the race for one of the most high-powered jobs in the country was Len Brown's to lose.

Independent opinion polls had him well ahead of John Banks, his more experienced rival but a candidate with baggage.

Though Brown is relatively unknown outside Manukau, it seemed he was benefiting from an "anyone but Banks" verdict among voters worried that the new council, the brainchild of Act leader Rodney Hide, was designed to suit the interests of big business over communities; that it would be CBD-centric.

The self-inflicted damage Brown suffered over his council credit card use was like watching a train crash.

Using his council card to pay for personal items - which he always intended to reimburse the council for - may not have been a major crime, but it was against the rules.

Subsequent Herald reports that he expected ratepayers to pay for his lunch and coffee meetings - and some mystery functions - suggested a sense of entitlement which undermined the 53-year-old's key political planks of accountability and transparency.

Worse, he had been repeatedly warned by council staff to produce receipts.

It was inevitable political opponents would seek to make the most of any suggestion of misspending. It was plain bad luck that the issue coincided with disclosures about credit card abuses by Labour cabinet ministers.

But the Brown camp was slow to grasp the potential fallout and responses were ad hoc and unconvincing.

The ill-advised stunt of cutting up his credit card - like a compulsive spender hauled before his bank manager - on Campbell Live left an impression that Brown could not be trusted with money.

Right-wing bloggers and Citizens and Ratepayers-aligned councillors in Manukau had a field day. But Brown's response that he was the victim of a conspiracy seemed soft.

The pressure he felt culminated in a chest-thumping, head-smacking, display at a council committee meeting on June 15.

This lent fuel to concerns his opponents were already flagging: that Brown is ill-equipped for the real pressure the one council mayor will supposedly be under; that he is a lightweight from the suburbs; that he is flaky.

Manukau City councillor Daniel Newman had thought Brown capable of the big job - advocating for a third of the country's population and 40 per cent of its economy - but now feels Brown is letting himself down.

The super city mayor needs to be "solid as a rock" and be able to stand-up to the Government and political opponents, says Newman.

"What it clearly demonstrated was five minutes of pressure and the guy was floundering."

He says Brown's extrovert side that will see him unleash a corny song or "get down" with hard-case youths can be very endearing, "but the hitting and slapping and self-flagellation ... was nothing more than poll-driven theatre ... trying to demonstrate a victim mentality."

Others, including Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett, say Brown's emotional reaction is understandable.

"This was personal, it was about his integrity," says Barnett. "It's the very fabric of who he was being undermined."

Long-time supporter Alan Johnson is another disturbed by Brown's recent behaviour. Brown is the Singing Mayor of Manukau, he wears his heart on his sleeve. His spontaneity can be refreshing, but viewed out of context can be cringe-inducing.

But this was something Johnson had not seen before. It made him wonder whether his friend might still be carrying emotional baggage from his 2008 heart attack and subsequent touch-and-go recovery.

"Things like that change people," says Johnson. "I think [his response] is causing people to reflect on his leadership abilities more."

Brown invited further mocking when he compared the scrutiny he was enduring to the persecution of Jesus. We now know he was dealing with the confirmation of wife Shan's throat cancer and the impact on their children. But he is not using that as an excuse - perhaps an indication he is learning.

The furore has given Brown and his supporters a timely wake-up call and put them on guard for what is to come. As Brown told Campbell Live last week: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I'm even more ready for this job." Those close to him say he doesn't give up easily.

The new-style mayor will have freedom to imprint his vision for Auckland on the council, leading development of plans, policies, and budgets for council approval.

He will have his own staff, appoint committee heads and propose the rating and water-charging systems. He will balance oversight of big-budget Council Controlled Organisations with being accessible to communities.

Some say this calls for a different style of leader to the safe, small-c conservatives who have dominated local body politics.

Brown certainly is an interesting mix: the Southside kid who became a partner in a city law firm; a corporate lawyer, at home with the suits, but equally at ease with Polynesian youths - saying "Waddup?" and getting away with it; a nice guy who can twist arms; a Pakeha who sings waiata (and rap); the socially conscious politician who supports business; the staunch family man who's rarely home for dinner.

A coaster at school, he's now known for committing totally to issues he is passionate about. The consuming goal right now is the Super City mayoralty - a creation he passionately opposed.

He has his Catholic faith but doesn't force it on people. He has his mantras like: "I believe that every day I can change the world" or "Every day you've got to tell people you love them."

Polls have shown he is popular without being well-known outside Manukau. Rival John Banks is well-known without being particularly popular; a man who has worked hard to shed the baggage of a confrontational past.

The pair broadly agree on the big ticket priorities facing the city - roading, harbour crossings, public transport, waterfront development, sewerage, a convention centre - and both see private sector funding as part of the solution.

Brown edges Banks on ability to engage with diverse communities and consensus decision-making. He has experience in dealing with Government and says he doesn't take "no" for an answer.

But the past few weeks have added fuel to suggestions that he lacks political experience and resilience under fire, odd considering his 30 years in politics.

He says he now appreciates that the Super City job is a quantum leap from becoming Mayor of Manukau and the media and public interest is unprecedented.

He is concerned that some of the scrutiny has involved his family: "All I ask for from the media is balance."

He says he is a first-term mayor who is on a fast learning curve.

"I recognise that people may want to see a little bit more circumspection in my style and I accept that. But I don't want to compromise my passion and my love for the people in the community and there will be times when I will just peek out."

Brown is impressive working crowds, he engages audiences and shows passion. In negotiations, he does his homework and is dogged.

He chalked up a number of advances in social services in Manukau by "bringing department heads in and diplomatically shoving arms up behind backs".

One problem for Brown is that, outside Manukau, not much is known about his political achievements. He has yet to make his presence felt in a key battleground - the "old Auckland" central business and commercial core, which is surprising considering his legal connections.

Barnett (who is himself undergoing treatment for throat cancer) says Brown remains something of an unknown.

"He can stand on soapboxes and have his meetings on the North Shore but there are some major channels to market that he could and should be using and we haven't seen him use them yet."

Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association CEO Alasdair Thompson says Brown may have strengths in strategic thinking and management "but I simply don't know".

"He's had council experience but outside of that he's what you might call a suburban lawyer, not a senior partner in a big firm. I may even be wrong about that." (Brown was partner in city firm Wynyard Wood before becoming Mayor of Manukau. He set up its East Tamaki office and advised some major Manukau companies).

"He needs to get out some better understanding of what his skill set in that [leadership] area is.

"He doesn't need to sell us on his people skills and ability to connect with all levels of society. On the other hand you could almost turn that on its head for Banks."

Alan Johnson, who has worked for Auckland City and the Regional Council, says the new entity will need a completely different culture to those of Auckland City and Manukau.

"It depends what sort of vision you want to promote and buy into.

"The Auckland that makes the televison news, about the Rugby World Cup vision or the Viaduct vision, in my view is quite an elite one.

"Two-thirds of Aucklanders wouldn't give a toss about the waterfront and half of Auckland wouldn't have been to the Viaduct.

"It has to be more about identity than about aspirations and that's where I think Len can come off. I think he has the same breadth of understanding as Banks but the vision really has to be inclusive."