As we reach the welcome conclusion of Trump’s 2020 campaign, one of the most bizarre in recent history, Stewart Sowman-Lund takes a peek behind the curtain of three of New Zealand’s own chaotic campaigns.
‘Mike… fuck,” says Jeremy Greenbrook-Held, drawing out the “fuck” like someone with a story to tell.
The “Mike” he’s referring to is Mike Lee: former Auckland councillor and icon of local politics. Greenbrook-Held was his campaign manager in 2016.
The campaign that year was chaotic, defined by a fixation on what Greenbrook-Held characterises as “trivial crap”.
“[Lee] was absolutely obsessed with getting leaflets to every house on Great Barrier Island.” Great Barrier has a population of fewer than 1000. “He had people who would spy and tell him when they had received a leaflet,” Greenbrook-Held claims. “He would report back to me… ‘this person hasn’t received a leaflet yet’.”
Before taking on the role, Greenbrook-Held was a big admirer of Lee, who he saw as “the Michael Joseph Savage of local politics”. He jumped at the chance to work on his campaign. “Mike Lee has been around in politics for years and years and years. As a total political nerd, he was someone I’d looked up to.”
“Years and years” is a pretty accurate description of Mike Lee’s career. First elected to what was then the Auckland Regional Council in 1992, Lee went on to become chairman in 2004. His time in local body politics saw, among many achievements, him stop privatisation of the Ports of Auckland and push for electrification of Auckland’s rail network. He had been, for many years, a major advocate for the City Rail Link.
In 2016, Lee announced he would be standing for the Waitematā and Gulf Ward for a third time. He planned for it to be his last hurrah and intended to tell people that. Greenbrook-Held told Lee that admitting to it being his last run for council was a bad strategy. “If you do that, you’re admitting defeat,” he told Lee. “Why would people vote for that? They want someone who’s going to take them forward.”
Then there were what Greenbrook-Held describes as conspiracies. He had one about The Spinoff, says Greenbrook-Held, which at the time was a mere two years old and still learning to walk. “He thought The Spinoff and Generation Zero were funded by the Property Council,” Greenbrook-Held says. To be clear, it is not, and to its editors’ knowledge no one from The Spinoff has ever met anyone from the Property Council.
“He’d write these diatribes, these angry missives connecting all these conspiracies up,” Greenbrook-Held says. He would tell Lee not to publish them, but, eventually, they’d end up on Facebook. “And then somebody from Generation Zero would find it and put it on Twitter and me, and [Waitematā Local Board members] Vernon Tava and Pippa Coom would have to go in and try and fight these fights,” he says.
After Greenbrook-Held made some calls to determine whether Lee’s “theories” had any veracity, one person told him it was “the most embarrassing thing” they’d ever heard. “Whoever you heard this from: don’t tell another living soul,” they told him.
Regardless, the conspiracies kept coming, says Greenbrook-Held – and Lee did not react well to having his political stances ranked lower than his Waitematā and Gulf competitor Bill Ralston. “When it turned out that Generation Zero gave Bill Ralston a better score, he went apocalyptic.”
Things got even worse: “Part way through this, he blocked me on Facebook,” says Greenbrook-Held. “I was his campaign manager and he blocked me on Facebook.”
When asked by The Spinoff to comment for this story, Mike Lee asked: “Has The Spinoff ever once published a single positive comment about me?”
Christine Rankin has had a number of careers. Currently, she’s the deputy mayor of the Taupō District Council. She once headed up the Ministry of Social Development – a period defined by controversy. There were allegations of excessive spending and of an almost religious or cult-like leadership style. She famously lost a $1.2 million Employment Court case after not having her MSD contract renewed.
In 2014, Rankin ran for parliament as deputy leader of the Conservative Party. Colin Craig was leader. Rankin describes the campaign and its ultimately unsuccessful result as “tragic”.
“The overall feeling is one of sadness that something with such potential was ruined for no good reason. I think a lot of us at the time look back and think that,” she says. “We made absolutely incredible progress in three years, we had an enormous membership compared to other small parties. We were popular and for some reason we were pushing the buttons for a lot of people that didn’t feel they were represented by anyone else.
“It was ruined. I feel really sad about that.”
Rankin had never been in politics before she agreed to work with Colin Craig’s Conservative Party. “I really believed there needed to be morals and ethics in politics,” she says when explaining why she joined.
That would never come to be: the party finished with 3.97% of the vote, short of the 5% threshold required. A Reid Research poll ahead of the election saw the party on track to reach 4.6%. Rankin thinks this result set the party up well for a punt in 2017, but Craig’s actions following the election quickly put paid to this possibility.
There were the pamphlets written by purported whistleblower “Mr X”, delivered to 1.6 million households, that turned out to have been written by Craig himself. There was the sauna interview with David Farrier. And, of course, the allegations of sexual harassment made against him and the subsequent legal battle(s).
Rankin says the election loss could not be put down to a specific event, but that Craig’s behaviour became cringey and embarrassing. “The thing that ruined it, and I’m talking about the disintegration of the party, was Colin’s relationship [with MacGregor],” says Rankin.
In 2019, the High Court ruled that Colin Craig had sexually harassed Rachel MacGregor.
“Why did Colin – and this is what I said to him – carry it on [in court]? To whom did he prove any point? Cause it wasn’t the public. They formed an opinion about him based on that relationship and the action he took subsequently just reinforced that.”
Craig could not stop being “litigious”, says Rankin. It became a point of tension between the pair. “That was one of the things that he and I argued about – we argued about many things. We argued about him litigating, over and over again, or threatening to litigate. He has an endless money supply, so he can do it.”
Another argument, before the election, was over the David White photos of Craig posing in the long grass on Mount Eden. You know the ones.
“I’ve still never gotten to the bottom of those photographs he had taken in the grass. That was one of the times he and I had a terrible argument,” Rankin says. “He just didn’t ever take any criticism… he never ever took any advice from me.” Everyone in the party was embarrassed about the photos, says Rankin. “The board said: “Colin, you can’t do these kinds of things’.”
The sauna interview, recorded for TV3’s Paul Henry Show replacement Newsworthy, was another low point for the Conservative Party following its election loss. “I was gone by the time of the sauna interview, I think. That was just cringe-material, it was just dreadful,” Rankin says. “Colin was a self-made man, used to reporting to no one. And he didn’t.”
Speaking to The Spinoff, Colin Craig says the sauna interview was just “a bit of fun”, but it is not something he specifically regrets. “There’s a learning curve and of course you look back and think ‘you’d do this differently, and that differently’. I think that’s normal,” he says. “It was a long and a hard campaign for a party that wasn’t even three years old. We had candidates all over the country who worked super hard… I was super busy from one end of the country to the other.”
Craig agrees with Rankin’s assertion that the party made incredible progress in such a short amount of time. “I think we did amazingly well and I’m quite confident that if the Dotcom factor hadn’t arisen we would’ve crossed the 5% threshold,” he says.
I ask him about the Mount Eden photos; Craig expresses some bemusement that they seemed to capture so much attention. “It always surprised me some of the things that did become more ‘headline’. You can never absolutely predict where that’s going to go. Really, who cares if you’ve got a photo of you up Mount Eden looking out across Auckland City? Of course, people didn’t see that part of the photo, it just looked like I was lying in the grass.”
What the public doesn’t understand about Colin Craig is that he is very charismatic in person, says Rankin. “I remember so many journalists who were covering that election would say to me, ‘oh my God, he’s amazing in front of an audience’,” says Rankin. “He’s so intelligent, he is a self-made millionaire, he’s charismatic, and he is very, very funny. The whole package when you’re actually working with him day-to-day is very credible and very enjoyable.”
This charismatic persona was only witnessed in person, and the campaign was derailed by Craig’s quirks. “Our campaign was pretty good… anything we managed in the office was managed brilliantly. When [Craig] went out there and did some of those weird things it was very hard to contend with,” Rankin says, laughing.
Aside from his constant appearances in court, the public will remember Craig for being a bit of an oddball. Rankin thinks he would have got less stick from the public if he had been forthright about a medical condition he lives with: ankylosing spondylitis. “I wanted him to tell the public that he had it, because a lot of people made fun of the way he walked. It’s a terrible disease where he had a massive amount of pain every day,” Rankin says. “Your joints fuse, and he was incredibly courageous in terms of what he put up with. He would be in agony on many days and he wouldn’t let me tell the public in case they saw it as a weakness.
“It was another thing I never won on and people were incredibly cruel about the way he looked and the way he walked, and if they had understood what he was coping with none of that would have ever happened.”
Rankin speculates that Craig might have a plan to return to politics. He wouldn’t rule it out, and says he remains politically engaged. But, there are no plans afoot just yet.
“People ask me all the time whether I’m getting back into it. The answer is: haven’t ruled it out,” he says. “It’s an open page, not a closed book.”
Rankin and Craig haven’t spoken in a long time, but the former deputy leader remains angry that Craig “wrecked” the party. The party that exists now – the New Conservative Party – is nothing compared to what Craig helped to build, she says. “You’ve put yourself at the right hand of God,” she told him before news of his behaviour towards Rachel MacGregor became public.
“You’ve put yourself up there and said ‘I don’t do anything wrong, I live a very moral life.’ Well you have to live that life every day and if you ever do anything that steps away from that you’re gonna pay a very big price.
“He used to laugh and say, ‘I know Christine… nothing to worry about’.”
Geoff Simmons has just quit the leadership of The Opportunities Party following its second unsuccessful campaign for parliament. In 2017, he had a front row seat to the Gareth Morgan show as deputy leader of the then newly formed party.
Morgan, before throwing his hat in the ring for parliament, was best known as an economist and businessman, and an early investor in TradeMe, founded by his son Sam in 1999. He launched The Opportunities Party, or TOP, as a party of policy, but under Morgan’s leadership it very quickly became one of personality. “He constantly changed his mind in 2017 on whether he wanted to get into parliament or just wanted to stir up debate,” claims Simmons. “Under the heat and stress of the election, people tend to revert to what they know. And what Gareth knows is being controversial and stirring up debate.”
Despite this, and the unceremonious manner in which Morgan quit the party, Simmons is clear: “Gareth truly does care and wants to make a difference to New Zealand.”
The most notorious controversy generated by Morgan’s leadership came from his comments about Jacinda Ardern: “Jacinda should be required to show she’s more than lipstick on a pig. Will she be?” Morgan tweeted.
“[Morgan] will claim that the comments about Paddles or lipstick on a pig were a calculated undertaking, but the fact is that he sometimes has a few wines, gets a reaction and won’t back down. This was despite the fact that his behaviour directly contradicted what TOP was trying to do – make the election about policy rather than personality,” says Simmons.
Gareth Morgan rejects any assertion his controversial comments were unplanned. “If you don’t do that sort of stuff, you don’t get any cut-through if you’re a minor party,” he says. As soon as the lipstick on a pig comment gained notoriety, Morgan took it further – intentionally.
“It gave the whole TOP thing profile, it was absolutely deliberate. When the media got all touchy feely about it, I just doubled down on it. ‘Excellent, that’s exactly what I want.’ Once you’ve got their attention, you can have a sensible discussion. That’s the technique.”
I ask Morgan whether he should have backed down, like Simmons suggests. “Shit no. Absolutely not. Jacinda went on to say it was sexist, well, that was pathetic,” he says.
“I actually think she’s awesome, by the way.”
What about the Paddles tweet? That was consistent with TOP’s policy on sensible cat ownership, Morgan tells me. “[Paddles] got killed out wandering, so bugger it. It shouldn’t be out there and the owner is responsible. It was about raising the profile of responsible cat ownership, it just happened that cat was the prime minister’s. That was quite funny.”
Morgan, according to Simmons, cut his teeth in a time when being outspoken got media cut-through, he suggests. “Back then admitting you were wrong was a big deal. These days young people are sick of the bickering and oppositional politics.”
He adds: “They are also much more forgiving of mea culpas – just put your hand up, say you stuffed up and move on.”
Getting Mike Lee to do anything was difficult work. He did what he wanted to do, Jeremy Greenbrook-Held says. Despite this, the former campaign manager still speaks positively of Mike Lee, the political battler. “He is really good at pressing the flesh, he’s very personable when you meet him.”
So why, then, was Lee’s campaign such a challenge? Much like Simmons’ analysis of Morgan, Greenbrook-Held thinks politics moved beyond Lee.
“I think the idea of what a ‘progressive’ was moved away from him,” he said. “His progressive politics were progressive back in the 90s, fighting against privatisation and asset sales. It’s moved on, we’ve had two progressive mayors who have been about ‘how do we make Auckland a liveable city’?”
Lee won in 2016 and, despite ultimately losing, even ran again in last year’s election – a move seen as a betrayal by some. The 2019 campaign was a last-ditch announcement, and saw Lee go up against his former party mate Pippa Coom. Greenbrook-Held went on to run the Coom campaign against Mike Lee, with the newcomer sneaking in by just over 100 votes.
“The best candidates are the ones who can go and do their thing and trust you to do the nuts and bolts of the campaign,” he says, citing Coom along with fellow councillor Cathy Casey, and a little unknown called Jacinda Ardern whom Greenbrook-Held helped win the Mount Albert electorate in 2017.
Lee won’t talk with me for this article, but in a text, expresses some surprise that I want to speak to him about his 2016 campaign. “2016? Really? I spent 28 years in regional government but I am out of politics now,” he says. Now, he writes the occasional column – his most recent advocating for a post-lockdown visit to Te Horo, near Kāpiti. Simpler times.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.