Herald journalists have been spending time with party leaders for election series Leaders Unplugged: eight parties in eight days. Today, the Maori Party's Marama Fox shows Nicholas Jones her family's horses and takes him 10 pin bowling.

'Bring gumboots," Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox texts the day before we met.

"Walk on the clumps," she advises now as we pick our way across a part-flooded paddock on the outskirts of Masterton.

Up ahead are the Fox whanau's newest members, Whero and Huaki. The family took on the two horses in February from a friend who was moving to the city.


Ben Fox, a softly spoken shearer, had never even touched a horse before but has schooled himself up by watching online videos.

"He is now the horse whisperer. He watches horse whispering on YouTube," Fox teases, as the animals follow her husband as if to prove the point.

Fox's daughters have already helped feed the horses breakfast and choose to stay in the truck for this media photo op - a decision justified as sheets of rain blow in. Whero's past life was as a racehorse in Hong Kong, living in a high-rise complex, Fox says. Who knows what he makes of the depths of this Wairarapa winter.

The plan was to go for a ride but headline-making rain saw that scrapped in favour of 10-pin bowling. Fox was happy to oblige our last-minute request for some pictures of her with the animals, even if it means her heeled boots are now streaked with mud.

She has swapped her usual flat-peak baseball caps for an orange beanie but otherwise seems oblivious to the cold.

I clumsily pat Huaki's nose, and Fox puts her hand under the horse's mouth. "Down here, like this," she demonstrates.

Back at our car she pulls up with a plastic bag for my just-bought gumboots. I'm feeling looked after, but in truth Fox is allowing me to intrude into precious mother time.

Nineteen - yes, 19 - call the Fox double villa (plus sleep-outs) home.

"I've got five sons, four daughter-in-laws, six moko, three daughters and my husband - they don't count me in that number. I'm never home," Fox explains.

"And there is one other daughter who is schooled in Hamilton.

"That house is full to crowded to overflowing. We are the blinking poster family of overcrowded communicable diseases. I have had the flu three times already.

"We got conjunctivitis one time. My son got it. His girlfriend got it. Her family got it. Our family got it. The rugby team got it. And they called it the Fox Eye.

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox feeding her horses in a paddock in Masterton. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox feeding her horses in a paddock in Masterton. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"The whole town got it - I'm not even lying."

Fox's background is education - as a teacher in kohanga reo and kura kaupapa and as a Ministry of Education adviser.

Former Maori Party leader Tariana Turia asked her to stand for the Maori Party twice, but both times she was pregnant.

In 2014 she wasn't and after entering Parliament she became co-leader along with Te Ururoa Flavell. Fox, who affiliates to Ngati Kahungunu and Ngati Porou, will stand in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti electorate in September's election.

Her energy and willingness and ability to rattle off a great soundbite mean she is often sought out as MPs weave their way through media on their way to question time.

All the same, it has been a tough transition.

"Going all over the place to different hotels or eating alone in a restaurant or in your room. Boo. That sucks," she says of an MP's lifestyle.

"Because you are a co-leader of a party, and because you are Maori, every Maori in the country wants you to come and solve their problem. I get rung up to go everywhere.

"I mean we go back to Parliament for a rest from recess."

A goal to be home for the weekends was revised to Sundays to Sunday afternoons, "and now I have just told everybody I will not be home any weekends between now and the election".

Living close to Wellington has advantages, and Ben sometimes brings her two youngest daughters to spend a night "over the hill".

"They stay with me and I spend the whole night with them lying all over me. But the next night my husband will come over by himself."

That love started after a meeting at the shearing shed, and a first date spent eeling. Ben is Masterton born and bred.

Fox's family went to Christchurch after her mum founded a playcentre. She was soon raising five girls, including Marama, alone after Fox's Pakeha father split "because she was now earning more money than him".

Fox says struggling through winters with a young family filled her with determination. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Fox says struggling through winters with a young family filled her with determination. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Fox went to Elmwood Primary and Christchurch Girls' High School - an education many travel over town for, but one that gave the future Maori Party leader no answer when a friend, prompted by Waitangi protests, asked her why "you Maori" had to be so greedy.

"I knew I was offended but I didn't know the answer ... I had one of the best educations you can get in a Pakeha world and they didn't teach me about Maori land wars, about my own people, history, te reo Maori - and made me take Latin and French. Yay. 'Bonjour, ca va, ca va bien.'"

It was only later in life that Fox says she realised her people were "born of greatness". Much of that knowledge and pride came from learning the Maori language.

"That's why I want te reo Maori to be a core subject in schools ... we would eliminate institutionalised racism because you just [grow up] understanding about where we all come from."

Fox has spoken in Parliament about the discrimination one of her sons suffered under a teacher at secondary school.

She says when she first moved to Masterton staff would follow her in shops, something that has happened to her daughters too.

We've moved into the warmth of Master Bowl near that same main shopping drag. Muddy boots have been swapped for bowling shoes, and a Chris Brown video is blaring on the TV. Fox's 2-year-old grandson is transfixed by the interview, not taking his eyes off us as he steadily works his way through a bowl of hot chips.

The Maori Party co-leader takes the occasional time out to throw a succession of gutter balls - "this is tragic, this is down-trou material" - and to answer queries from her daughters, clearly loving having mum home this rainy Friday.

Winters were once tougher. Fox recalls the humiliation she was made to feel after (unsuccessfully) asking Winz for a grant to buy a washing machine, after tiring of washing cloth nappies for five children in the bathtub.

A determination sprang from that, she says. Another help has been the family's Mormon faith, one that both she had her husband were raised in.

"We sort of stayed in a hole and didn't really go anywhere until we made changes in our lifestyle of going back to church.

"It's played a big part in just helping us raise nine kids."

Fox has a cough, and says she's surviving the campaign with copious amounts of Red Bull, including a hit first thing every morning. She'll soon be on the road and back to those empty hotel rooms and lonely meals.

"There is not a lack of love at home. And the thing is, we have a season and they know that this is my time. I spent 26 years being a working home mum.

"They are good dads, they are good families, they are good providers. And we work together to make it right. They know that I'm away a lot but they know I am doing good things and this is where I need to be at the moment. So we are okay."