By ALISON HORWOOD
We are four minutes late for an appointment with Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, but when we get there she is nowhere to be seen. Husband Theo Tait, 71, answers the door of their Masterton home in his underwear. Red-patterned Y-fronts and a white Jockey singlet and gently scratching. Just woken up from an afternoon nap, he says. His wife's up the road at the cafe between the visitors' information centre and the rose gardens.
It turns out that the Christian Heritage Party deputy leader, and former Women's Refuge boss, is worried about being caught with the house in a mess. That, and it seems like a good day to sit in the sun and have a coffee.
When we find her, she looks as good as she does on the television chat show How's Life, without the stylists. Firm handshake, warm smile, coiffed hair (checked in the bathroom before our photo shoot). Today's designer outfit (many are second-hand) is a chocolate-coloured houndstooth jacket, velvet collar and matching high-buff shoes.
She's finishing her first double-strength latte and is close to ordering a second. She talks fast, and it's not just the coffee. "I do possess a type of fearlessness. And it does seem to get me in trouble," she says without apology.
At the refuge she ruffled feathers lobbying Parliament, criticising Maori leaders, and saying Waitangi Treaty money should go towards mending families.
Then there was the surprise move this year into politics as Graham Capill's deputy. Surprise, because she always said politics wasn't her thing. It wasn't where the real work was done, she told this newspaper two years ago.
Surprise also because, despite a convent education, this thrice-married woman who smokes mini-cigars and got caught at Wellington's nude bar Mermaids isn't the type you imagine sharing a pew with the Christians.
But being the new girl (and the Wairarapa candidate for a party which failed to gain 2 per cent of the party vote) did nothing to slow her down. Just this week, she was pushing for Capill to resign, after a critical report of his leadership by her campaign manager, Adam Owens.
Funnily enough, it was a public speech by Capill that inspired her in the first place. He was demanding to know how many New Zealanders cared enough to get involved.
"I thought, goodness gracious, I don't want to get involved with people with a straight and narrow view, rigid thinking, Christian fundamentalists," she laughs. "Of course I found out no one size fits all."
Getting into politics was also about timing, she says. Her refuge contract was ending and she didn't seem the type to sit around and wait for an opportunity.
She's coy about her future. Deflects the question twice like a true politician, but you forgive her because she has a great laugh and is dying to talk about her husband of five years, Theo.
Finally she says she would give the leadership a go if asked. She intends to stick with the Christians, and she's smart enough to know that "in a small party you can play quite a big role quite quickly".
She also thinks all New Zealanders deserve a fair go and thinks she got something to offer. "I don't see anyone in Parliament challenging the issues. They have all been silenced," she says. And silenced is something you know Merepeka Raukawa-Tait will never be.
The middle child of three girls, she and her sisters were given three gems of advice by her mother, Rangitihi McMinn. "You are beautiful. You can do anything. And speak for yourselves but always know what you are talking about."
It's Raukawa-Tait's recent television work - and her dawn talkback slot on Radio Pacific - that make her realise how much knowledge she has gathered over the years.
Before refuge, she worked in Switzerland with Dow Chemical, ran several businesses including a restaurant and a sporting goods shop, held several ministerial appointments, worked as an analyst for Internal Affairs and held a management position at the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua. And if that wasn't enough, she also got an MBA.
The talk has been lightning quick and Raukawa-Tait hasn't missed a beat, even to greet eight passersby who have recognised her in the past hour. The last calls to her in Maori and she proudly translates, helped by te reo lessons her husband has been giving her. "I admire your work, whaea," she says, explaining it is a term of respect for an older woman.
The conversation pauses for the first time as she uses her cellphone to ring Theo. She tells him we are on our way home, and perhaps to tidy the house.
"I may be a cafe girl, but Theo is a boil-up man." This man, who brought up seven children and spent his life in Rotorua, serving on the power board and working as a bushman, fencer, farmer and hunter, now runs their home.
As well as his children, whose ages range from 30s to 50s, there are 36 grandchildren and "about" 16 great-grandchildren. "Theo is always there for them, they are family, but they never really approved of our relationship because of the age gap," says Raukawa-Tait, 53, who has spoken in the past about her own inability to have children.
She describes her husband, whom she met 15 years ago, as someone who "enhances her role". "People gravitate towards Theo. It's because they sense he's interested in them, and he's not there for any other reason than to be with me."
As we walk past the gardens, she stops to taste a piece of frilly lettuce. Head back, she laughs long and loud. She can't tell her husband there's food growing up the road or he'll turn up to uproot it."We can't travel anywhere in the car without a knife and a plastic bag. He can spot food growing in a drain at 80km/h . Watercress, puha, turnip-tops ... "
They bought their Masterton home in May to live in the electorate, but there are plenty of reasons to stay.
"A sense of peace. For an older Maori man there is a lot of family and community commitment. Coming to Masterton has been like a fresh start for us."
Back on their porch, she gets on the outdoor exercycle as the late-afternoon sun dips on the half-hoed vege garden. Pedalling furiously, she manages to light a cigarette and still she is talking.
The Raukawa-Taits pose together for a photo, he in his slippers and she in her heels.
There is lots of playful banter and at one stage she has to be told to stop laughing so hard, it doesn't look good for the photo. She giggles, but as relaxed as she may be is still media savvy enough to tell him to "keep his top lip above down" when he smiles. He broke his top plate on a meal the night before, she explains.
I want to know what drives her, and she talks seriously of not wanting an A and a B team. "Every New Zealander should feel important and be given a chance. I think I can make a difference with this, whether it's in politics or in some other way." But Theo has a different idea of what drives her. "It's her husband," he says, and this time he laughs so hard the gap in his teeth is clearly visible.
By ALISON HORWOOD