Political flak over the Otara fleamarket, which started as a fundraiser for the Labour Party and Te Puke Otara Marae, proved a springboard into local body politics for party stalwart Len Brown.

By the early 1990s the fleamarket was so successful that businesses in the struggling Otara Town Centre blamed it for taking customers away.

National MPs took up the cause and raised questions in Parliament about the peppercorn rental charged by Manukau City Council, suggesting Labour's Otara branch, chaired by Len Brown, was ripping off the community.

Resource consent for the market to continue operating was appealed by the local supermarket, claiming the fleamarket was affecting its viability.

Brown rallied the community to defend the market; there were street marches and a large turnout at the hearing. He says what won the day was the supermarket's own evidence that it was actually picking up business on Saturdays from flea market visitors.

The victory gave him the impetus to stand for council in the Otara ward.

As a councillor, he had a seat on the Otara Community Board and found he was able to bring "whatever issue I wanted" on to the board agenda and into council. It was 1992, the height of recession, and unemployment in Otara would peak at 50 per cent.

"This was a community that needed strong representation - we were setting up Otara for the next 50 years."

With Otara ward colleagues Reuben Riki and Kuku Waratai, Brown worked on the council to prioritise Otara projects including a new recreation centre, a new library, rooms for Maori wardens in the Otara town centre, arts and cultural facilities and clean-ups of polluted Otara lake and local creeks.

He was instrumental in setting up Otara Health, securing funding from the Regional Health Authority to put health workers into homes to tackle a wide range of issues, and he chaired the trust for its first four years.

Co-ordinator Olivia James remembers Brown handling the politics at a time when community-based activities challenged health funding models.

"The whole thing would have fizzled if it had not been for Len. He was definitely in politics not for his own aggrandisement but to enable change."

Brown quickly established himself on the council, impressing councillors and staff with his commitment.

Former Mangere ward councillor Arthur Solomon noted his debating skills.

"If things were going one way he had the capacity to turn them around and win the day with his oratory skills. He was very knowledgeable about issues ..."

Brown became the protege of long-serving Manukau Mayor Sir Barry Curtis, chairing its annual plan and strategic management committees.

Curtis, who lasted 24 years as mayor, found Brown shared his vision of social equity and economic development. He says he was a "very capable man who comes to terms with issues very quickly. All the time, I could see he was a leader in the making."

Brown backed Curtis to turn back frequent challenges to core policies including free swimming pools, uniform annual water charges and retaining airport shares.

Their advocacy led to a succession of big-ticket infrastructure projects: the connection of the southern and Mangere motorways; the rail link to Manukau City Centre, east-west roading projects, the AUT campus.

Brown says his approach to lobbying agencies is "we don't do 'no'."

"I just become the hammer. When it came to fighting for the community we just bring department heads in and diplomatically shove arms up behind backs and get action."

But Brown's political instincts are not always noble - or unerring. Challenging Curtis for the mayoralty in 2004, he wasn't about to let his good relationship with Colin Dale, the long-serving and popular city manager, stand in the way of publicity.

Making a stand for "accountability", Brown moved to censure Dale over a scathing Audit Office report on the council's building consents division in the midst of the leaky homes disaster and developer complaints about delays.

This time, Brown's rhetoric failed to win councillors' support.

Curtis was disappointed when Brown stood against him in 2004; he wanted one more term to complete "unfinished business". Three years later, when he opted to stand down, Curtis was "very relaxed about [Brown] becoming my successor."

On Brown's suitability as single council mayor, Curtis is equivocal, noting Brown and Banks have completely different levels of experience. "Auckland is so different to Manukau and the challenges are so different."

Brown's mayoralty has been dominated by two unfortunate events - the heart attack which derailed him for six months in 2008 and the Government decision last year to opt for a single council. But he has put his stamp on the city as Mayor with a raft of social programmes, marking him as a liberal with moral conservative, law and order leanings.

Close liaison with the Counties-Manukau police has led to clampdowns on graffiti, boy racers, P labs and dak houses and local programmes to combat burglaries.

Brown set up a Mayoral Taskforce on Drugs to ensure co-ordination in responses to the P scourge. He pushed through plans to take a graffiti bill to Parliament providing the council with power to remove graffiti and police with powers to request information and arrest an offender.

He says tagging has fallen by 70 per cent and the police have kept to a target of closing an average of five P labs and dak houses a week.

Manukau also pushed for a liquor licensing law reform giving communities more say in applications for off licences. The council has continued to introduce liquor bans in public places and on beaches and introduced a sinking lid policy on gaming licences.

Brown says the result has been "massive increases in community pride and perceptions of safety" in its surveys of residents.

He also committed to John Walker's Find Your Field Of Dreams project. "It was a wonderful vision - simple and achievable: getting every kid active in sport in our community."

Brown and Walker secured $3 million annual funding to launch the scheme, which uses Manukau swimming pools and sports clubs. Brown's support was pivotal in the MIT campus and transport interchange project, says MIT chief executive Stuart Middleton.

The council also has a promising scheme to guide school leavers into work, tertiary study or assistance such as mentoring.

The programme, with Ministry of Social Development and Education Ministry support, began in Mangere this year and there are plans to extend it to other suburbs.