Veteran Auckland politician Mike Lee is being encouraged to challenge Phil Goff for the city mayoralty – possibly complicating the mayor’s fight with former cabinet minister John Tamihere.
Lee, who many had presumed would retire from his Waitemata and Gulf ward seat on the council at the October election, says constant pressure from constituents and others has made him re-think and look at a mayoral bid.
A former chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, which was swallowed with seven other local authorities into the Super City nine years ago, Lee told Newsroom he was giving the suggestion thought.
He had long intended to retire and enjoy life at his home on Waiheke, writing.
“Given the depressing trajectory of the ‘Super City’ and the unpleasant working culture under Phil Goff, retirement is a very appealing option for me,” he said.
“However, I am also under a lot of pressure from members of the public and my councillor colleagues (the ‘B team’) to stand again.
“However it’s got a bit more complicated than that, as just about every day now l am getting requests to stand for mayor,” Lee said.
He would not be drawn on declaring for the mayoralty or even the council seat. “My answer is that I haven’t decided. It’s not just a question of what suits me but for what is right for Auckland. I will let you know as soon as I decide.”
There’s no certainty he will go through with standing for either role at the council. His re-think is a flashback to 2016, when he said pressure from voters and colleagues persuaded him then to put off retirement.
Lee was a former merchant seaman and worker in the offshore oil industry before becoming involved in politics. He has been continuously elected to roles in Auckland local politics since then, staving off a challenge in his council ward at the last election from former broadcaster Bill Ralston. He was an unsuccessful Alliance Party candidate for Parliament in the Rodney seat in 1996.
In his time on the regional council he helped return the Auckland ports company to full public ownership and added more parks to the regional network.
His reference to the ‘B team’ on the council is to a group that has come together with increasing frequency in this term to challenge or out-vote the mayor, at times blocking actions backed by Goff and his close circle of councillors. ‘B team’ councillors reportedly resent the way Goff has failed to communicate about issues and feel he has treated elected councillors with disrespect.
Lee frequently clashes with Goff in council debates, most recently when Goff questioned the honesty of a position the councillor was taking last week on extra funding for the City Rail Link underground project.
Both Goff and Tamihere are former Labour Party MPs and cabinet ministers, meaning if Lee stands all three would, nominally, have come from the left of politics. Tamihere, however, is cultivating a more centrist and populist platform for this campaign.
Any mayoral bid by Lee would be unlikely to succeed, unless Goff and Tamihere cannibalise each other’s support severely. Lee has loyal supporters but has earned detractors over his many years in office, particularly among some public transport lobbies, despite his advocacy in the past for the underground, rail electrification and reopening of the line to Onehunga.
If Lee ends up standing again for his council seat he will face a challenge from the left in the form of the Waitemata local board’s chair, Pippa Coom, who has already been endorsed by the City Vision group, which all but flies the flag for Labour in city politics.
Given Lee’s opposition to the Goff leadership style and policies, a Lee candidacy could be more likely to draw votes away from Goff than Tamihere, helping the Waipareira Trust chief executive to make up ground on the incumbent.
The mayoral race also has a centre right candidate, John Palino, who has twice stood unsuccessfully drawing 109,000 votes in 2013 and just 22,000 in 2016, behind Goff and Victoria Crone.
Goff won convincingly last time, with 187,000 votes or 47 percent of the city-wide vote.
He has managed to hold the base rates rise to his promise of 2.5 percent a year but a variety of other charges have been levied over that time making the true cost to ratepayers much higher.
Auckland’s transport congestion and housing shortage and affordability problems remain intractable, despite long-term commitments to act alongside the central government.
The complexion of the 20-member council, which has clipped Goff’s wings over the past year, will be a key point of interest in the October poll.
The so-called ‘A’ and ‘B’ team tensions have bubbled away beneath the surface but in the City Rail Link debate last week, one ‘B’ team councillor Daniel Newman from Manurewa-Papakura spoke openly of the affiliations. Newman, who has been talked of as a de facto leader of the B group, was last weekend at the side of National Party MP Judith Collins as her Papakura team handed out blue balloons at a gathering.
His open mention of the A and B team division provoked the non-aligned Labour loyalist Alf Filipaina, from the Manukau ward, to take offence. “I have never been on the A team or the B team. If you do not know what team you are on, maybe you should not be around this table. The ‘community team’ should always be the one.”
This election, Manurewa councillor and former Olympic 1500m champion John Walker is widely expected to retire due to his health, with the Manurewa Local Board chair Angela Dalton the most likely replacement. She has worked closely with her ward councillor, Newman.
West Auckland stalwart and frequent ‘A’ team member Penny Hulse is retiring, in all likelihood to be replaced by Labour’s Shane Henderson from the local board.
And Lee’s future in Waitemata and on the B team, as a potential councillor or mayoral candidate, could leave Goff with ongoing tensions if he makes it to a second term.