One Question Quiz
Geoff Taylor: ‘I get up in the morning thinking about the river project, honestly.’ Image: Archi Banal
Geoff Taylor: ‘I get up in the morning thinking about the river project, honestly.’ Image: Archi Banal

Local Elections 2022September 19, 2022

The man in the purple shirt says he can turn Hamilton around

Geoff Taylor: ‘I get up in the morning thinking about the river project, honestly.’ Image: Archi Banal
Geoff Taylor: ‘I get up in the morning thinking about the river project, honestly.’ Image: Archi Banal

A former Waikato Times journalist and a failed Mills & Boon novelist, Geoff Taylor wants to move from deputy to mayor of Hamilton. Aimie Cronin quizzes him over coffee.

Geoff Taylor’s mug seems to be looking out from every street corner in Hamilton. The deputy mayor arguably had no ambition to run for the mayoralty in the upcoming local elections until a year ago, but he’s all in now. Like all candidates having to synopsise their campaign slogan with that single billboard pose because most Hamiltonians won’t bother to learn a single thing about them, he’s gone for a casual hand on the hip, a smile like he’s mid-conversation over a sausage at a barbecue, a snappy purple shirt that says I’m living my campaign slogan and Making Things Happen

On the corner of Clyde Street and Galloway in Hamilton East, Taylor’s face has been cut out by vandals, presumably being used for something lewd further up the road, but his purple shirt’s still there, popping. “The purple shirt!” he says. “It’s my favourite shirt!” He got it from Hallensteins. He likes to arrive at speaking engagements wearing the purple shirt in front of an image of himself on a large screen wearing his purple shirt and apparently, it’s become a bit of a joke where people yell out: “Ahhh! The purple shirt!” He seems happy. 

I worked with Geoff Taylor at the Waikato Times. He started his career there in 1999 as a 34-year-old political reporter and says it turned him into a “nasty little man”. He went on to cover various other rounds that restored his humanity and was deputy editor when I met him as a newly trained journalist in 2011. There was nothing nasty about him then. When he left the Times in 2014, I asked him if he was going to try and become mayor one day, he was just that guy: charismatic, approachable, a bit slippery. You could imagine him exploding into laughter at a dirty joke behind closed doors. He laughed off my prediction as they always do and said he was thinking about becoming a teacher. 

“I knew it!” I tell him as we sit down for coffee eight years later. He says when he and his wife Julie, a nurse, did the budget for teachers college and the subsequent beginning teacher wage, they found they couldn’t afford it. So he started a business with his good friend Richard Walker called Long River Press writing memoirs and books about businesses and joined council in 2016. I remembered that he was also writing romance novels at night when he got home from his day job at the Times, trying to get published by Mills & Boon.

“I sent one off and it didn’t get published,” he says. “It’s really hard to get published, especially for a man. I put too much sex in it, like, man sex, it was probably the end of me.”

I tell him that I have tried reading Mills & Boon to get me to sleep at night and usually end up tossing them across the room. 

“I love them,” he whispers. 

“All of the women are virgins!” I say. “I read them yelling, ‘Why can’t any of them have had sex?’”

“I don’t recall that,” he says. “It escaped me somehow.”

He says he made his wife read his drafts. “She was very kind, you know, she didn’t say they were shit. I got her to help me with the sex scenes. I said, ‘What would a woman want, because I have no idea.’”

“I hope it wasn’t the first time you were asking that,” I say. He explodes into laughter, clapping his hands as if to say, you got me. 

“It’s not just romance,” he says, “I want to write heaps of other books, once this turns to custard.”

Another photo shoot, the same purple shirt. (Photo: Andrew McRae / RNZ)

Why is Geoff Taylor running for mayor? He likes his writing business and it seems to be doing well enough, topped up with his salary as a Hamilton City councillor. He has a spiel about Hamilton once having been “an ambitious, confident and growing city … we got to where we are by backing ourselves and getting shit done, by being independent and fearless.” He pauses for effect. “We’re not now. Which is why I’m standing, really. The last three years have felt like a government department that has to ask for permission from the office.” He lists the issues, many of them national: high-rises in the suburbs (he’s for them in the CBD, but no further afield), safety (he thinks we rely too much on police and need to increase our number of City Safe staff and get to know each other better with planned weekly barbeques on every street), Three Waters. 

His take on current mayor Paula Southgate’s handling of Three Waters is the linchpin of the Geoff Taylor mayoral sell: he’s pitching himself as the man who would have fought like hell against Three Waters and Southgate as the mayor who failed to take the hard line against the government each time she had the chance. After our coffee, he writes in an email: “For her to now suggest she never supported the Three Waters model is comical. The mayor sat on the fence for a year when our council could have been taking a strong position in leading the national debate. Her refusal to consult residents as I called for in August 2021 effectively locked the city’s residents out of the debate and backfired, because when the government produced the final legislation, residents were given only two weeks to have a say.” 

Southgate, in her first mayoral term and standing for re-election, says she has always had concerns about Three Waters and has repeatedly pushed back against the government, unsuccessfully. Her approach is collaborative, that’s what she’s about. Taylor says she should have taken a stronger stand. “Flex your muscles! Show a bit of frontier spirit!”, he says at one point. He says Southgate should have rallied other cities to join forces (she says she tried), “now it’s going to be really hard and the only thing that is going to turn it around is a National-led government repealing it if they’ve got the courage”. Taylor says he will vote National in the next elections.

Opposition to Three Waters is a major plank of Taylor’s policy agenda (Photo: Supplied)

Taylor wants to tell me about the other component to his Making Things Happen campaign and that’s turning the city to face the river. He sees it as council’s role to enable developers to get on and make things happen down there: apartments, commercial space, a regional theatre, a sports hub and a pedestrian bridge. “If I get elected, we won’t recognise the waterfront in five years.” I can tell he likes these dramatic one-liners, maybe it’s the writer in him, maybe it’s the politician. I smile suspiciously at one point. “I truly believe in everything I’m doing on council. I get up in the morning thinking about the river project, honestly.”

I want to know what made him a nasty little man when he covered politics at the Waikato Times. It seems to be a combination of dealing with too many career politicians and sitting through too many meetings. “And the nature of it is that it’s a power game, isn’t it, so…”

I observe he’s right in the middle of it. 

“Yeah, and I’m doing it because I’ve got some cool ideas and I’m excited.” 

He says he is calmer now than he used to be. “How should I put this? I don’t drink much any more and it has made me calmer. I’m healthier, I made a lifestyle change there.” 

It’s a bit of a stretch, but he likes to credit the regular “common sense barbecues” he stages around the city for helping keep him grounded. He has pledged he will try to continue them if elected, saying either he or fellow councillors will be in attendance each month. He wonders if getting to know each other face to face might lessen crime, among other things. “Imagine if we had a barbecue on every street, every month, and maybe a community garden, maybe a library box, maybe a compost heap, a place for people to meet where we’re all offline for a bit.”

I ask if people have been showing up.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

I ask how many sausages he takes (he doesn’t eat them because he’s a pescatarian and never remembers to get veggie ones in time).

“Two bags of 40. Sometimes you might get 20 people, but sometimes you might get 70 or 80.”

I ask if people come and complain about the council.

“Most of them don’t,” he says. “People like to talk about high-rises in the suburbs, trees, speed, weeds. I’ve been really delighted by people’s responses.”

He says when he takes his Jack Russell, Charlie-boy, for walks in Grandview Heights where he lives, he is stopping the whole time to chat with neighbours. Some people go out of their way to avoid that kind of thing but he’s adamant he loves the chitchat.  

That’s the other thing I remember about Geoff Taylor. He loves his dog. When I ask how people can access him on the campaign trail, he immediately situates himself at Swarbrick Landing on Tuesday and Thursday mornings where he religiously drops his dog off at the doggy daycare pickup point at 8am and picks him up at day’s end. “I have to admit and it’s a little bit embarrassing, but I don’t like leaving him at home. So he goes to doggy daycare twice a week and I try and organise meetings on those two days.” 

His campaign seems to have come a long way since the Waikato Times story in March telling how he had failed to turn his camera off while vacuuming shirtless during a council meeting on Zoom. I thought it smacked of a cringey publicity stunt. Not many people know anything about local councillors – was this his way to try to get his name out there as he announced his candidacy for the mayoralty? He convinced me it wasn’t, “Oh shit no. God no,” he said, but as I sit down to write, I wonder. 

What to make of this man who sleeps in a bed with his wife, two cats and dog each night, who loves Ken Follett novels – “the scope! The incredible scope of his storytelling!” – who gave up meat after watching a TV show where a goat was about to be killed and eaten for dinner (“the look on the goat’s face … I stopped at that very moment and I said to Julie, ‘you know, I’m not going to eat meat any more, I just can’t’”), who has four step-kids and they all call him Dad, who listens to Newstalk ZB with Mike Hosking in his car and was told by Michael Laws during an interview: “You’re a good man.”

I read through the transcript of our coffee meeting later and realise he has sidestepped my question about rates. Will he increase them as mayor? I text him with a few questions and say, “You didn’t give me a straight answer about what you’d do with rates?!” He replies answering all the questions, bar that one. I text him the following afternoon: “No comment on rates still?!” Radio silence. I think Geoff Taylor will do just fine in politics.

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