It's dark and drizzling and i' />

Banksie's driving the shiny, spotlessly tidy mayoral car along Auckland's gridlocked roads on the way back to town.

It's dark and drizzling and it takes an hour to get from the SPCA headquarters in Mangere to the city where he is to make another campaign speech as part of his punishing schedule in the race to become the first Super Mayor.

But he's relaxed and cracking jokes, sometimes reducing himself to giggles, and seamlessly slipping in and out of campaign mode and scattering cliches and one-liners, some of which have been around for as long as his 33 years of political life - but there are some new ones too, like "you've got to tell people you appreciate them every day" and "all criticism is destructive".

His media man, Scott Campbell - who used to be a TV3 parliamentary reporter - has been relegated to the back seat, and John Banks, mayor of Auckland, freely admits he has to be the driver.

He has a designated chauffeur who does mostly admin work because the mayor hardly ever lets him drive. Banksie, as he refers to himself, snorts with laughter when he tells how, in his first term as mayor, his driver found it intriguing to have to sit in the back.

We already had a fair idea that Banksie is a workaholic (up by 4am, in bed by 10pm) and something of a control freak. Is he a changed control freak, though?

John Archibald Banks was born in 1946 and has been described in a variety of ways over the years but one word which pops up these days is conundrum. He is kind and generous, on the one hand, name-calling and offensive - or at least he was - on the other.

The Banks we meet today is impeccably inoffensive, often funny, seems sincere and at one stage gets a bit teary when talking about his adopted Russian daughter Natalia.

He says with pride that she has been accepted into the prestigious Alfred Hospital in Melbourne where she is training to be an emergency nurse.

The other Banks is pretty much all out there.

The former National MP for Whangarei who survived 18 years in Parliament and is in his second term as Mayor of Auckland, albeit with a humbling hiatus in between terms when Dick Hubbard beat him, has been deeply and almost carelessly offensive to many people over many years.

The Herald's early files on him from his parliamentary and radio talkshow days are littered with insults against, oh well, anyone from homosexuals and judges to Maori and Polynesians, and journalists. He once called a colleague a "streak of weasel's piss".

But the name-calling has stopped. When Banks lost to Hubbard he took what he described as a long, cold shower and emerged as a new, far more amiable character, though he also says the softening has been going on since he adopted "my three Russians" - the children he and wife Amanda brought to New Zealand from Russian orphanages 14 years ago.

Some people we spoke to were cynical about whether his demeanour was anything more than outward dressing motivated by a need for public recognition, possibly driven by self-esteem issues related to the childhood he paints as pretty bleak and possibly also related to his short stature.

Others we spoke to said he really did seem to have changed, that basically he's nicer and has been consistently so since his return from the cold.

Even some hardened political opponents say on a personal level they like him, and friends he has had since schooldays know a kind and generous side.

While acknowledging he can polarise, they say he has a great ability for leadership and can take people with him - something the new mayor will need to be able to do when the eight Auckland councils become one.

Banksie on Banksie

So here we are in the mayoral car after having our first meeting for this story at the SPCA.

We were going to meet at his house in Remuera but Banks changed the arrangements because he wants to highlight that he is an animal lover; he has described himself as an animal activist over the years.

He's keen on the city's stray cats - which he says are homeless, not stray, because they are much-loved - and used to feed the free-wandering chickens of Albany, describing their shooting a year or so back by the North Shore council as an animal abuse outrage.

At the SPCA, he explains that he thinks you can tell a lot about people and countries by the way they treat animals. He went to Madagascar for the Intrepid Journeys programme and declined eating dishes made of most of the animals because of the appalling treatment they were subjected to.

"Animal rights and animal welfare [have] been a centrepiece of my life," he announces in SPCA director Bob Kerridge's office.

"I have this view that animals are the canary in the coalmine of homes and there's a high correlation between animal cruelty and family abuse ...

"You're probably looking at someone in public life who's made more speeches about our responsibility to animals than anyone else in the country."

He thinks his love of animals started when he was about eight and living on a farm in Kaitoke, near Wellington. He had a dog, but because the family he was living with was so poor they couldn't afford to keep the animal so it was shot.

The potted history of Banks' early life is that he was taken from his jailbird parents and raised by an aunt and uncle from the age of two, along with the many foster children they took in.

He has said he was very unhappy and was delighted when his real father, Archibald Banks, emerged from prison and came to fetch him, bringing him to Auckland to get a "first class education" when he was about 14.

Archie Banks was a notorious career criminal and Banks' mother Kitty was an alcoholic (Mayor Banks does not drink) and they were both jailed while he was attending Avondale College (after failing to get in to Auckland Grammar for being a "drongo". Banks is a strange mix of boasting and self-deprecation.)

His parents' crime was procuring abortions; this is all spelled out in an authorised biography written some years ago by Paul Goldsmith who is now on the council.

One of his old school friends, the swimmer Hilton Brown, told us Banks was self-sufficient in having to look after himself as a youth and used to find it a bit of a novelty to come round to Brown's mother's house for a home-cooked dinner.

One of the reasons we're outlining his early days is because at the age of 63 he is still talking about balancing the family ledger. He has been talking about balancing the family ledger for years and in a recent debate with Len Brown he used the line again.

Surely after all these years he has balanced the ledger? He says no, and that there is a long way to go.

Though he doesn't really elaborate on why, he does say that while he loved his parents he didn't much like them, but he has no regrets about where he has come from in life.

He replies good humouredly when asked whether he thinks people will trust that he has really changed, that we will find that out on October 9.

He does not trade in calling people names, he says, and thinks that in the past three years his team has brought a lot of dignity to the Town Hall.

The key has been to be able to disagree with people without being disagreeable. "Once upon a time, if you didn't share my views I was disagreeable, and disagreed." But he has grown up, made mistakes and says he clearly realises that though he once thought he was right about everything, he now knows he is not.

He pauses a bit, then says it's not that he has tried to take "the Banksie out of Banksie", it's just that he's "Banksie-lite" these days.

And he thinks people who know him quite like him. "It's the people that don't know me that tend not to like me, but it's not important to be liked."

Later we sit for a while in the education centre and the mayor unwinds. The good humour continues when he is asked if he remembers the Metro magazine headline "Is John Banks Mad?" and whether he has ever seen a psychologist or had any professional analysis?

There's a slight groan about the headline and a bemused "no" to the analysis, though he thinks some people have been analysing him for years and probably some people from time to time think he needs a bit of counselling.

He's really quite soft, he says, but concedes that there are things he wishes he hadn't said.

It was a brutal time in the bear pit when he joined the National Party caucus, he says, but he has tried to make amends.

For instance, he says he rang former Prime Minister Jim Bolger (who didn't want to comment for this story) on his 70th birthday to apologise for any offence he may have caused when in Parliament.

In fact, he says that he hates no one and he would like to apologise for any offence he has ever caused anyone and "get the slate all clean and say I'm sorry and move on". Losing the election to Hubbard was such a severe blow to him, he went on a leadership course in Australia, and did a lot of thinking.

But though that loss was humbling, it also offended his competitive nature.

"I. Don't. Like. Losing," he says, drawing out every word, then repeats it, "I don't like losing. If we go for a run together from my home up Mt Hobson and back, I've got to beat you. If you come to my home and the photographer wants to play chess with me, I've got to beat him."

He is so extraordinarily competitive, he says, "If I need to beat you in a running race I'll eat broken glass and raw meat and [do] six weeks of training to do it, but I've got to win."

However, Banks is no longer a jogging, superfit politician. A tumble and an operation left him with an awkward shoulder which means he shakes hands rather stiffly and moves a little slower.

Asked if he's analysed his need to win, he pauses then says it was growing up poor. "The alternative to being poor is success, definitely. Going to bed hungry and waking up in the morning wondering where the next feed's coming from keeps you focused ..."

But he also says winning this mayoralty is so important to him because he is seriously ambitious - for the country, for Auckland and for his own family.

Because the other thing that has changed him profoundly, he says, is his adopted children who he has kept very protected from the limelight.

Banks became an instant father at the age of 50 and as a self-confessed clean freak (he admits later he has been known to tidy colleagues' desks after they have gone for the day) found suddenly having towels on the bathroom floor hard to bear.

His tidiness is something of a family joke. Later, when we go to his home and meet Amanda (who says Banks is kind and caring and very easy to live with) and the two boys, Sergei who is now 19 and Alex, 17, the boys say they are very proud of their dad, but he is strict.

Banks pipes up to say the boys would probably be in the Russian army if he and Amanda hadn't adopted them, and Sergei mutters "it wouldn't be as strict though" - and everyone bursts out laughing.

At the SPCA Banks had earlier told the story of how he didn't know he was going to have a daughter until he met Natalia at the gates of a Russian orphanage.

Aged eight, she said to him (through a translator), "If you take me home with you sir I'll sing and I'll dance for you forever" and he says he promised her he would be back. When he and Amanda found out she had two brothers, they adopted them as well. The children were so vulnerable, he says. They had no possessions, no clothes and couldn't speak English," but when you bring them home and they've all been split up from such a young age and you look out the window and see them walking around the lawn all holding hands and Natalia picking flowers it's not hard to get to love them quickly."

They don't know much about the children's biological parents except that they were gypsies and that there is an older sister still in Russia with a grandparent.

Natalia communicates with them, he says, and wants to finish her studies in Melbourne then travel and one day go back to the orphanage and work there.

Banks suddenly gets a little emotional and reaches for a glass of water, then says affectionately that Natalia has a lot of cheek and plenty of pluck, "and I want to say this, you want to meet Natalia, she is very tough ... very strong minded. She is a little Banksie clone, a little Banksie clone ..."

Is Banks for real?

Old friends rave about Banks.

Schoolmate and rugby league stalwart Ray Wilson: "We've never had a cross word. He would be the most loyal person you would wish to meet."

Hilton Brown: "I trust him implicitly."

Michael Springfield, an old friend from Whangarei: "A lot of people have got the wrong idea about John. He's probably one of the most caring guys in the community, he's the kind of guy who will ring you up just to tell you he loves you."

But you would expect close friends to say nice things.

So we asked Labour MP Chris Carter - before he got sacked from the Labour Caucus during the week - what he thought about Banks, because Banks was famously offensive to him.

When Carter was first elected in 1993 and outed himself as homosexual in his maiden speech, Banks covered his face with a newspaper and would not acknowledge him.

Banks also used to call Carter

Christine, though, says Carter, never to his face. Carter says he has not had one of those apologies from the Mayor, however, they get on well these days.

When Carter was made Minister of Local Government, Banks was mayor "and I have to say we developed a good working relationship. I wouldn't call it a friendship but I would say that things were quite cordial between us so there was a remarkable transformation from 1993 to the period 2002 to 2008."

Carter also says that his maiden speech caused a sensation at the time but now there are even gay National MPs and no one blinks an eye, "so we've moved on and I guess he, like most New Zealanders, has probably moved on on that issue."

Even Labour leader Phil Goff, who was mystified to hear he is a Facebook friend of Banks, and who entered Parliament at the same time, says he likes him on a personal level.

But he says though Banks is working very hard to try to moderate his image, "I think he's getting the best advice that money can buy and his polling will be telling him what he needs to say."

Christine Fletcher, who admits she has more reason than many to criticise her old National Party parliamentary colleague, is also a fan these days.

Banks turned her life "upside down" when he took the Auckland mayoralty from her in 2001; he called her lazy and arrogant and she ran an advertisement recalling his outbursts on homosexuality, Italians, Japanese and "natives". She now says that even in his abrasive parliamentary days, Banks had a caring side and that she saw his bravado as a bit of a facade.

The outbursts stemmed from insecurity, she thinks, and a desire to impress National's "caucus bully boys".

He is a conundrum, she says, and he has had to confront the very real pain and hurt he inflicted on people's lives - "he has apologised to a number of groups, saying it wasn't really his intention to offend".

Jon Johannson, though, doesn't think Banks will get over credibility issues in the public mind. Johannson is a political scientist with Victoria University and also has a background in psychology.

He thinks Banks has made a problem for himself with all his "transmogrifications", which is the word Banks uses to describe his changes. This chopping and changing is a double-edged sword for someone who established such strong credentials in the Bolger days, Johannson says.

"On the one hand it could be viewed as showing his greater flexibility as he's got more experienced and involved in local body leadership. On the other it could also point to the fact that he just panders to whatever his focus groups and polling tells him people want to hear, and that's the crux of Banks ... I've got no doubt there's a real personal integrity around what he believes but I think the persona of John Banks is quite willing to do anything and say anything to advance his own professional goals."

Banks told us that in the new council, anyone wanting senior appointments will have to leave their political colours at the door, but the Labour-aligned City Vision on the current council say he has always run the council according to politics.

Richard Northey, another former parliamentarian, says although politer than he used to be, Banks runs the council the way Muldoon used to run Parliament - "there's our side and there's the enemy.

"It's a pre MMP-type Parliamentary system. We have separate caucus meetings each Tuesday where we are obliged to put up amendments so he and his advisers have plenty of time to decide how they're going to respond to things. It means debates are a set-piece rather than a genuine attempt to find a win-win compromise solution."

Northey says Banks runs council meetings rigidly - "he's nervous about losing control".

He'll have to change, though, Northey says, because he can't see any one group getting an overall majority, so whoever becomes mayor will have to run a more MMP-type council.

And despite Banks' efforts to change, Northey says he retains some traits which disturb him.

"There are occasional bits of what I find really strange behaviour, like the constant hand-washing after shaking hands with people, and the going out into the night to feed stray cats.

"He's clearly somebody who from his childhood has been severely bruised, and I admire him for getting over that, in a business sense at least, and he's been pretty successful politically. But someone who exhibits those strange behaviours - you wonder in a crisis whether they'd be able to deal with it effectively."

City Vision colleague Glenda Fryer says Banks has been prepared to change his mind - but in response to polling, not because of debates.

"If it looks like he can get more popular going on one side of the debate than the other he will do that.

And she notes the committee chairs in the current council are all men - "He doesn't work well with women."

Citizens and Ratepayers colleagues, though, talk of him being able to make the hard decisions and someone with strong leadership skills.

Old Avondale College teacher Ken Prebble says he remembers Banks' leadership potential, but says he was a bit of a larrikin looking for recognition among his mates when he really didn't need to because he had so much ability.

But where Banks, who credits Prebble as one of the big influences on his life, told us Prebble used to share his lunch with him because he didn't have any, Prebble doesn't remember doing so and thought this could be a bit of Banks' hyperbole - a story which appears exaggerated, such as when he says he spent three years in fifth form when he only spent two.

Prebble says the hyperbole could be a function of Banks still looking for acceptance and is perhaps an attribute of low self-esteem. He might appear boastful but he is a "very down to earth fellow who does not have a high opinion of himself," Prebble said. "He's a generous man, he's an affable man, he's a humble man, despite the fact none of these things are apparent."

Prebble says firmly Banks is not motivated by power and is straight up and down and very honest. "He's forthright. I don't want to use cliches but what you see is what you get."

John Banks often uses that cliche himself.

Feature writers Catherine Masters and Geoff Cumming compiled this special report on John Banks, with considerable input from Bernard Orsman, who covers the Auckland City beat and has been a Banks-watcher for more than 15 years.