A year in Holland on a Christian youth exchange programme was to cement 18-year-old Len Brown's positioning to the liberal left of the political spectrum.

It was the mid-1970s; the Cold War and Iron Curtain dominated European politics. Holland had military training and bunkers in case of atomic bombs, Brown recalls.

Holland was also "the conscience of the world", attracting young liberals interested in exploring more than just Amsterdam's coffee shops.

Based in the southern city of Tilburg, Brown hitchhiked around Europe, grew a beard and wore hippy threads. "It was a mind-blowing and mind-opening experience."

"It opened me up politically and socially hugely. Gandhi was my political hero: 'Become the change we want to see' - I believe that."

When he returned to Papatoetoe, the 19-year-old was out to change the world. He joined the Labour Party and enrolled in political science at Auckland University, where Helen Clark was one of his lecturers.

It was a time of oil shocks and recession, rising unemployment and dawn raids on Pacific Island overstayers.

Rob Muldoon was Prime Minister, practising what Brown calls the politics of division. "I could see what that was doing in our communities."

But Brown didn't join the Labour Party's Princes St branch or pick up placards. "I was 'evolution not revolution'. I was always back in the community, still living at home."

Not yet fixed on a career, Brown enrolled at law school thinking it might underpin his leanings towards a political future. What he found was an outlet for his desire to help people. He was soon defending locals in criminal courts around the city, his public speaking skills to the fore. He worked for firms in New Lynn and Papakura before joining city-based Wynyard Wood, working at its Panmure office.

He had also married. At 22, he married Anne, a "trusted friend" he had met through church youth activities in Papatoetoe. The marriage lasted five years and Brown today seems perplexed by it. "There are a lot of great memories but ultimately it was a marriage that failed."

His early legal career ran parallel to his growing political activism. He joined the local Labour electorate committee when Otara was part of the Hunua seat.

Another left-leaning lawyer, Matt Robson, came on board before the 1981 election campaign, when Labour's Colin Moyle took the seat from Winston Peters.

The pair were soon running the show, Brown as chairman and Robson as secretary - young Turks among the mainly elderly party faithful.

Brown remembers the energy generated in south Auckland by David Lange's rise to leadership of the Labour Party and 1984 election victory.

Moyle was a cabinet minister in the Lange Government and not always available for constituents. Brown and Robson hosted weekend clinics on his behalf, using their legal skills to help with issues including immigration cases.

The Otara fleamarket, which started as a fundraising vehicle for the party and community, proved not only a money-spinner but a link between party and community.

Former MP Mark Gosche met Brown and Robson in the early-80s when they were key players in the community. "I think what stood out with Len was that he fitted in very well with what was a strongly Pacific community."

Labour tore itself apart over Rogernomics. "It was hard yakka staying in the Labour Party over that period," says Gosche. "A lot of people walked away but Len's loyalties lay in the community."

Robson says Brown was always able to bridge Manukau's east-west divide and ensure all interests were represented. "His reputation was well-earned - if you took a problem to Len, he would not just dismiss it."

Labour's long-serving Auckland secretary Andrew Beyer remembers Brown as one of a "quite unique group" of Pacific, Maori and Pakeha - who undertook collective community leadership in Otara.

"They combined in a whole range of projects, developing community facilities, community organisations and health programmes. People would team up on whatever job needed to be done. He took that background into council and it's very much still with him."

After the 1988 "machete murder" in the Otara Town Centre - a killing which sparked fears of a race war between Tongan and Samoan youths - Brown and Robson rallied the community. They organised meetings and, with the help of church leaders, tensions quickly eased.

"It was an event that really helped form my style of political leadership," says Brown. "Within a day we had pulled the whole community into a massive public meeting and over three or four hours reconciliation occurred.

"We were able to bury the grief and confirm that it wasn't a racial thing."

The episode helped to raise Brown's profile from someone doing good things in the community to a potential leader.

Brown encouraged the political rise of another son of Otara - Sua William Sio, now the MP for Mangere. Sio says Brown could have succeeded Moyle in the Otara electorate in 1993 if he'd wished but wasn't interested. "He wasn't there necessarily for himself; he was there for the community."

Instead Sio secured Brown's support to promote Taito Phillip Field to replace Moyle - and Field became the country's first Pacific Island MP.

By the early-90s, Brown was firing on several fronts. He had graduated from commercial work to become trusted legal counsel for some heavyweight Manukau corporates, was courting Shan and, living in Howick, started weekly clinics offering free legal advice.

He then convinced Wynyard Wood to open a branch office in East Tamaki and set about drumming up business.

Old boss Selwyn Hetherington says Brown had "a great ability to say 'well, that may be the legal answer but it doesn't solve the problem'. He was able to think outside the square and come up with a solution." He would take that approach into council politics.

274 - WHO YOU GONNA CALL?

A spate of drug-related murders and stabbings in 2005/06 put the Labour-led Government under pressure from law-and-order lobbyists to respond.

Len Brown was then in the political wilderness after failing to unseat Manukau Mayor Sir Barry Curtis. But it was Brown who the Clark administration sought out for advice, says youth worker Alan Va'a.

Va'a had been warning of the emergence of new-style youth gangs with little respect for the established order of the Tribesmen and the Mongrel Mob, and carrying out a trade in P.

Brown and other community leaders recommended stronger policing, action in schools and more support for youth workers. He set up Otara Youth Action, securing $600,000 in government funding for youth worker programmes in Otara.

The youth workers (Va'a, Sully Paea and others) adopted the name Project 274 - the first three numbers for Otara phone calls - aiming to steer young people away from gangs. Similar programmes now run in Mangere, Otahuhu, Papatoetoe and Manurewa.

Police set up youth action teams, linking with Work and Income staff to divert at-risk individuals into training or jobs.

"He's very honest about what he can do and he fulfills his commitments," says Va'a. "It's rare in a politician.

"He has no qualms about making decisions that may not be popular."

Brown: "I love being able to do that - pick where there's a shortage or a need and make it happen. That's been my greatest strength - to build, to deliver change. Just let her rip."