Ron Mark, local body politician, is a changed man from the Ron Mark, New Zealand First MP, who left Parliament in 2008. And it's not a mere wardrobe makeover.

His fit 56-year-old body is now jeans-clad, with checked shirt and casual jacket, apparel more becoming of a Wairarapa life-styler than the natty suit and black fedora hat he wore as a Winston Peters teammate.

He's calm. The four-term MP, once junior whip in the National/NZ First government, could lose his rag at the drop of a hat, remove his glasses melodramatically and lob verbal missiles across the house.

TV3 was banned from filming for three days after Mark raised his middle finger to another MP. He called someone a "paedophile", who in turn reminded Mark that, in 2001, media uncovered his 30-year-old conviction for unlawful sex with a minor (they were both 15).

Now one of his stated aims is to head a "united council" and Mark sees no irony in that.

"Parliament was a totally different place, where you were pushing against your opponents, harder and faster every day. It's very combative. But this is a different situation and I have proved at Foma [Federation of Maori Authorities, where Mark is chief executive] that I am a good boss.

"Without blowing my own trumpet, my staff told me so the other day."

Mark's partner for the past six years, Christine Tracey, who has no doubt influenced this new calm, joins the conversation: "I've seen a gradual transformation since 2008: a positive approach to things, less aggressive and forceful manner, especially since we moved here."

"Here" is a lifestyle block they bought three years ago on the outskirts of Carterton, population 7098, where Mark was born. A few cattle, sheep and chooks share the property.

Hi childhood is well documented - years spent in foster homes all over Wairarapa, mostly happy, he says, though it's hard to tell because Ron Mark doesn't do victimhood.

At age 16, he joined the Army as a soldier apprentice mechanic and served 15 years there, some with the Special Air Service, and spent 13 months on a peacekeeping mission in Israel and Egypt.

For five years, Mark soldiered with the Sultanate of Oman's land forces in the Dhofar and retired as a major in 1990. He still advocates the military as a positive alternative for troublesome youth. Joining the Army sorted him out, made him proud to serve his country: "It's the making of a man."

This tough talk goes down well in small-town Wairarapa. The locals love it. But it's not new-speak wheeled out for the campaign. He's talked tough on gangs for years and has tried several times in Parliament to get them banned. Even when his opponents revealed that his younger brother, Tui Mark, had been president of Black Power, Mark the MP front-footed the issue, declaring: "I'd lock up my own family if I had to."

So, why mayor? It's not as if Mark needs more work. He commutes to Wellington by train several days a week to run Foma, an organisation committed to advancing economic development for Maori. He's also a member of the Greater Wellington District Council's Wairarapa Moana wetlands group and is involved in numerous Maori land and housing trusts.

He owns up to criticism that he's taking on too much.

"I've got to work for a living, I've got a mortgage. The mayor's position here is not full-time and the current mayor will openly say that, so I can still head Foma. That job takes as much time as I want to give it."

Only two others are standing for the mayoralty, both current councillors, Ruth Carter and Bill Knowles. But because the retiring Mayor, Gary McPhee, is a close friend and ardent supporter, Mark has a good chance.

His supporters are positive, packing out the Gladstone pub on the first night of spring to campaign over beer, chardonnay and the cook's famous garlic bread.

Leith Comer, chief executive of Te Puni Kokiri and his wife, Fi, (both Carterton residents) are here, as is McPhee, in his Harley Davidson jacket.

The bar fills up quickly and the politicos are ushered through to another room.

Mark's got Carterton nailed when he speaks of "a new Carterton on the horizon which some people don't see coming".

Over the years, weekend houses were purchased in Greytown and Martinborough while Carterton was viewed as the poor relation. But the district is now perking up. It's home to Mirabelle's Cafe, ranked by locals as the region's best restaurant.

Every year, John and Melanie Greenwood, who have poured millions of dollars into their beautiful Italian garden, open it to the public and raise nearly $30,000 for the Keep Carterton Beautiful Group.

But, as Mark acknowledges, Carterton has socio-economic extremes.

The median income for those over age 15 is $22,000 compared with the national median of $24,400, and only 12.9 per cent earn more than $50,000 while 18 per cent of the rest of New Zealand earn that much or more.

Locals fear these figures are fodder for the hungry aspirations of Kerry Prendergast, Mayor of Wellington, who is seen as keen to swallow Wairarapa into a future super city - for its own good, she says.

Last October, she asked: "If you are mayor of Carterton, do you really think you're going to have the same access to the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers as the mayor of Auckland will have?"

Mark reacts sharply to this: "An arrogant, aloof statement showed she'd been in the job too long. That week I'd actually met with the Prime Minister and three of his ministers, privately, and I see them on numerous occasions.

"Kerry's gotta get off her high horse. There may or may not be a merger but the bottom line is we have to put Carterton first."

Prendergast insisted this week that she doesn't see a Wellington clone of the Auckland Supercity engulfing Wairarapa. "We don't have the same issues, we're not dysfunctional. We do talk to each other."

But, given Rodney Hide's review of all local government, Prendergast says the status quo is not an option. "We need more shared services and we need to talk with one voice if we are to remain relevant."

One thing is certain: any potential merger worries locals.

It becomes clear at the Gladstone pub meeting, and throughout Wairarapa, that the lesser of two evils would be a merger of Wairarapa councils, rather than with Wellington.

If super councils are inevitable, then Wairarapa would unite against a common enemy south of the Rimutaka Hill.

So with Winston Peters threatening a comeback, does Mark wish he'd had another go at national politics? Does he miss those nights he spent carousing?

Mark struggles to remember amusing stories - or is he being discreet?

When he met Christine he stopped hanging out in bars with Winston.

One night that stuck in his mind was during the early days, celebrating a birthday at someone's flat.

Winston loved sitting around singing, playing the guitar. On this occasion, Mark played the guitar all night and Peters dictated the songs.

"All night through to four in the morning, each song he knew by heart; every word, every line. Amazing recall. I couldn't believe it.

"Does he have a good voice? Of course, he's a Maori."

Plenty of others can tell of late nights at Wellington's Courtenay Pl with Winston and Ron, spent at the Hummingbird bar or at karaoke. "Winston will get back in, for sure, but I don't regret not being there," says Mark.

"I want to focus my next three years on making Carterton a place for families to move to and stay."