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Half an hour with the man of power

Thu 28 Oct 2010 In: Features View at Wayback View at NDHA

The thing that first strikes me as I sit down at a huge round table somewhere in the depths of the Manukau City Council next to man of the moment Len Brown, is that he doesn't really seem like a politician. There is no posturing. He has a gentle and friendly yet resolute manner that instantly makes me feel at ease. He looks me in the eye when he talks. The last time I recall speaking to Brown, I was a cub radio reporter with the local body round calling him after he very, very narrowly lost the Manukau mayoralty in 2004. To much of the media, preoccupied with the Banks vs Hubbard race across town, Brown's near-toppling of incumbent Sir Barry Curtis seemed like a bit of a bolt out of the blue. Little did we know he has been out knocking on thousands of doors, speaking to his community - and most of all listening. It's his style, what he describes as his "community activism". He tells me it's important to him to be local, be centred in the community and to lead with his heart. "Sometimes people say 'you're a bit emotional' but to me that's about connecting with people and letting them see that I give a damn. I seriously give a damn about what we're trying to achieve. That is my sole motivating force." After that frustratingly close loss in 2004 he took a three year 'sabbatical'. But he wasn't on holiday. Brown went back to the streets. "I went home. And just readjusted, reassessed," he says. "And grew a lot of power out of that and was sure that this was what I wanted, was my calling. And so we absolutely slammed it when I became the mayor here." Brown says it's vital to maintain strong roots in the community through many organisations and associations. "That's how I've been able to maintain a formidable network. And people don't see me. They completely underrate me and underestimate me – they have no idea what my networks are like. This is local government, not Parliament – and it's those networks which get you home." "And what an amazing ride I've had. I just about died. My city died. I nearly lost my wife a little bit. And now I'm Mayor of the whole kahuna. It's pretty amazing!" he laughs. It's just a brief moment of reflection and Brown quickly moves on, clearly aware his biggest challenge has just begun. He has a colossal job ahead and there are many questions he has yet to answer. So we head to some of the issues GLBT Aucklanders want answers on. Brian Tamaki The Destiny Church "links" One of the murkiest areas around Brown has been his supposed 'links" with the Destiny Church. He scoffs when I bring it up and quickly explains. So let's get one thing clarified: Brown does not belong to Destiny Church. In fact he doesn't even really have Destiny Church links, just friends who are Tamaki followers. The stories began the night he suffered a heart attack at the Pacific Music Awards in May 2008. He is good friends with two members of a band called Cydel, who are Destiny Church members. "On the night when I fell over they were the closest to me," he says. "And they jumped up on the stage and basically threw a cordon around me and somehow or other, it somehow got out that they were both members of the Destiny Church. From that it became 'Len Brown is a member of Destiny Church, you know, blahdee blah blah. And it was just nonsense." Brown says he has been to Destiny Church, once, for an awards ceremony Brian Tamaki invited him to last year. He went along to support his "guardians" from Cydel and the Genesis Youth Trust, which is a police-based youth initiative. "I'm a proud Catholic," he says, stating he is 'a mile' from Destiny Church. "But I certainly appreciate some of the work that the members of that church do in our community. It is massive." Brown laughs that it's the same as how attending the Big Gay Out doesn't mean he is gay. I tell him it would be a big scoop and a great headline for me if he was. He continues laughing and retorts "well it might be to my wife. 'Look, mayor comes out!'" LGBT Networking Group The soon to be defunct Auckland City Council set up an LGBT Networking Group which met several times a year. A council employee and several community leaders met to keep the council informed of the needs and concerns of LGBT residents and ratepayers. Brown supports it continuing. "And my door is open," he says. "If representatives of the gay community and senior leadership want to meet and greet, talk, discuss, have a concern, my door is open." GLBT youth I talk to Brown about the work of Rainbow Youth and the concern for the wellbeing gay youngsters in New Zealand, pointing out their higher likelihood of being bullied and the increased risk of self-harming and suicide attempts. I mention the many high-profile US cases of suicides following anti-gay bullying. I tell him many GLBT youths are struggling and ask whether there is anything the super city council can do. "You're talking about young people for a start," Brown responds. "If you know anything about my political background you'll know that I'm really focused on youth. I spend a lot of time in schools and connecting with youth wherever they are. Whether it's in sports clubs, churches, organisations, whatever – I'm there. "I even give myself a little bit of time on stage with very, very poor freestyle rapping. I'll do whatever it takes to connect – and that's why I went on Facebook." Brown says a youth council is also being set up and he suspects there may be the possibility of gay youth representation. "So there is an avenue and opening there for young people to get significant say in Auckland Council." The mayor-to-be says he would happily speak to Rainbow Youth members if he received an invite. On John Banks I tell Brown that I know a number of people who voted for him due to their deep distrust of John Banks, due to his history of vile homophobic mutterings, despite his seemingly softer exterior and assurances he is a changed man. "I think in the end people just made the decision that no, he's basically the same character. And he's tried to paint himself out of that corner. But he basically offended people so badly, over such a long period of time." On diversity "I'm a staunch Catholic," Brown again points out. "But I am from the liberal side. And I am very aware and sensitive to people making their own choices about their life. And I'm totally respectful of that. "You can make your own choice totally," he adds. "I've got nothing more to say. It's the 21st Century." Manukau Anti-Soliciting Bill Brown has copped flak from some GLBT people for his support for the Manukau Anti-Soliciting Bylaw, which has passed its first reading in Parliament and been sent to select committee. The law change would effectively ban street prostitution and give police powers to arrest 'on suspicion'. Some readers have expressed concern that as the transgender community is not comprehensively covered under anti-discrimination law, trans street workers could be unfairly targeted. There is some uncertainty around its future as the bill only applies to Manukau City Council, which will soon cease to exist. There has already been lobbying from conservative group Family First for it to be widened across Auckland. Brown does not support widening the potential bylaw to other areas, saying it was a solution to a local problem. He says Manukau has difficult community issues relating to street workers which have been causing major problems in Manurewa and Hunters Corner. He says that's why the council asked Parliament for powers to clear particular areas of its town centres. "We are not asking for it to be localised. But the behaviour is just atrocious. It's just reasonable normal families who have to deal with some really bad stuff. We just could not think of any other way to deal with it." Brown says the council worked with NZ Prostitutes Collective, the street workers and police and tried to deal with this issue in a 'backdoor' way, but the approach didn't work. "So we've gone for a statutory limited change. We're not talking about . . . any legislation which changes the focus of it. And I was supportive of the change because the primary focus was about public health. But that has been subverted in these two local communities. "I will just say to those with an interest and a concern in this area, that they just respect and understand that we've had some real problems and that is particular and peculiar to this part of town. And I know secondly that when there are problems you just don't deal with them by legislation. We've got work to do with those people who are active on those corners and their whanau. We know it's an issue with many sides to it, which I'm working on all the sides, but we need that legislation." The council make-up Brown believes the number of independents on the council is a strong message from the community that it does not want a dividing council. When people asked him who they should vote for, he urged them to pick councillors with their hearts in the community. "They've sent a whole bunch of people in like that." He points to former Papakura Mayor Calum Penrose who toppled Sir Barry Curtis as someone who has huge passion for his people. "And you see a guy like Mike Goudie up north. He's a 25-year-old character and he rides a skateboard and likes surfing. He's got wicked social network skills. And he is in." Brown proudly describes his deputy Penny Hulse as "hard" and "solid" and says the city made some great judgements. "Even someone like Christine Fletcher. She comes from a conservative background and she and I have got a lot in common." "It's a really good balanced council." Brown can't wait for Monday when he will be sworn in. He says he is simply keen to "get into it" and isn't even regretful about moving from his Manukau heartland to a new central city office in the Town Hall, pointing out the council will meet in a new space every month so different communities can come along. "We'll be doing everything we can to be out there. I'm going to be doing 'Mayor on the Chair' and Town Hall meets, and I'll be online, I'll be Facebooking, I'll be Twittering. I'll be doing everything I can to keep connected." Local boards Brown offers a big yes to the questions of whether the local boards will have any impact and whether they will be listened to. "They'll have significant delegations. They'll be doing a lot of what councils do at the moment – delivering our local services at a local level and setting the parameters around those services." Brown is promising to sit on a board every month and meet with all the chairs every month. "And I am determined that they are going to get up well and moving fast. And that they are going to connect well into their local communities. And how they do will depend on how well Auckland Council does." So can the GLBT Auckland community count on Len Brown to be our mayor as well as everyone else's? "Yes, absolutely", is his firm response. "I hope that the discussion today gives you a sense of my openness and fair-mindedness. If people say anything about me it's that I'm fair. Sometimes they won't agree with what I'm saying, but I'm fair. And I'll weigh it up and make hopefully fair judgements and fair decisions. And I'll be open." Brown needs an outfit for the Big Gay Out - but can he top that Metro cover!? Brown says he 'absolutely' will be at the Big Gay Out next year, he's simply not sure what he'll wear. "I'm not sure how I'm going to go or how I'm going to look. But I sing better than I dance. I might sing something." He is thinking perhaps Barry Manilow or Elton John, however as 'EJ' is more tenor than baritone he may struggle with some of the high notes. I invite him to come along and do some K' Rd karaoke and he laughs heartily then states "whatever" with a shrug of the shoulders. I think he almost means it. And that's my lasting impression of Mayor To Be on Monday Len Brown: a man who would have a hell of a time singing karaoke on K' Rd. Not to be showy, but simply to be out there connecting with people. Sure there are many things we may disagree with him on over the next three years, but I'm sure if you pulled him aside at Family after his rendition of Mandy, he'd be more than happy to chat to you about it. Jacqui Stanford - 28th October 2010    

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Thursday, 28th October 2010 - 8:44pm

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