John Palino outside his recently purchased cafe Little Sweetie (Image: Alex Braae)

Coffee with John Palino, the forgotten 2019 Auckland mayoral candidate

The Auckland mayoral campaign features more candidates than just Phil Goff and John Tamihere. Alex Braae sat down with repeat candidate John Palino, who is having another crack at the top job.

John Palino is doing it tough right now. He’s facing an extremely strong field in the Auckland mayoral elections. He’s struggling to get any press for his campaign. And the roadworks outside his cafe’s front window are maddeningly persistent.

We’re meeting for the interview at Little Sweetie, on Franklin Road in Ponsonby. It used to be called Fred’s, but the name changed when John Palino took over. When I arrive, he’s working the coffee machine. He offered me a seat by the window, and brings over a flat white that he’s made himself. I gesture towards the window where the footpaths are being cut up, and suggest it might be pissing him off a bit. Palino immediately launches into a diatribe about what’s gone wrong.

“It’s disastrous. Hugely disastrous. I had Auckland Transport here yesterday. The Franklin florists are moving out now – they’re very well known. They’re moving over the Richmond Road. I was talking to her just now and she said we’ve had enough. She’s loading up a truck and said I’ve had enough John, it’s ridiculous. Two years to do this project. They started my section six weeks ago. Six weeks ago! They’re not supposed to make any noise before three o’clock in the afternoon and then all of a sudden early in the morning they’re cutting cobblestones. Cobblestones – that’s like marble. It’s so freaking loud, we’re like, guys you gotta stop! Customers can’t come in, people left,  you know?”

He went on for quite some time, and much of the conversation flowed like this. His problems became stories with characters, gesticulations and exasperations. Like many Americans who turn up and make any sort of splash in New Zealand, he’s got a big and expressive manner. In fact, it felt like he was keeping himself in check a bit while we talked. Then again, perhaps he’s just tired. Running a cafe is hard work.

And so is running for mayor. John Palino is now on his third crack at it. He stood in 2013 and gathered up more than 100,000 votes, but came second to Len Brown. He had another crack in 2016, when much of the Auckland right had swung in behind Victoria Crone. This time he was less successful, winning only about 22,000 votes, and coming fourth behind Phil Goff, Victoria Crone, and future Green MP Chloe Swarbrick. Now he’s up against two objectively strong candidates. Phil Goff is currently the mayor, in a field of politics where incumbency carries immense weight. And John Tamihere is a former MP, runs a well known social trust and has snapped up a range of key political strategists to work on his campaign.

So, without being too rude about it all, why on earth is Palino going for the top job? Why not go for a Council seat, or a local board, or… just any other position that he has a better chance of winning? Because he’s a visionary, he says, and his plans are far too big for that.

John Palino pouring out a cup of coffee (Image: Alex Braae)

His major animating idea is that Auckland isn’t a city – it’s better understood as a region or a state. That means it should be understood as a set of different cities. And that means that centres like Albany and Manukau (and a new satellite city further south that he proposes to build) need to be dramatically scaled up.

He says if more businesses were in a position to set up shop in these new cities, the benefits of that would be felt in an immediate sense by people who currently spend hours commuting every day. “Do you want people to live that way? How do they spend their evenings or mornings, dropping their kids off or picking them up from school? That’s a way of life, twelve hours a day? Nobody should be forced to live that way and we’re doing that in Auckland. So how do you fix it? It’s very simple. You take an area in South Auckland and you actually create a new CBD.”

Hang on though, I asked, isn’t there already quite a bit of town centre upgrading and construction going on in Manukau? “How long has that been going on?” he shot back. I had no idea. “Thirty years,” he said. “When’s it going to happen? It’s about someone actually picking up the job and making it happen. People say, what are you talking about? Manukau is already zoned for this. So when is a developer going to build that office building? When are five developers going to build office building?”

“Six years ago, they built two apartments buildings. They sold out in a week. How is that possible that they didn’t build more? There’s been a big market for housing, why weren’t more built? Because the developer only owned that land. So people walked out of their apartment at nine o’clock at night and thought… where the fuck am I? There’s nobody around. I’m in like a dead town. And they moved out.”

So what should have happened? “Council should have come on board with a plan to build twelve of them, maybe with a strip of restaurants, parks, playgrounds, things like that. Council fucked that up, you understand what I’m saying?”

He talks about New York a lot. When I ask who the politician he most admires is, he’s very quick – former mayor Rudy Giuliani. It’s neither the 9/11 response nor the post-mayoral career as a Trump booster that he cites as a reason why – it’s the redevelopment of the city that he likes. He tells a long story about his restaurant career – “the Time-Warner merger was done in my restaurant” was one detail of it. But the fundamental point he makes is that the city was cleaned up “not for tourists, but for the people.” Does he miss New York? “I don’t miss living in a concrete jungle, and I think we’re at risk of creating that here.”

We talked for an hour, about greenery in cities, public transport, volunteering with the Salvation Army, people living in cars, Los Angeles, the changes he’s made to his cafe. Listening to the tape back, I noticed I laughed quite a few times. He’s incredibly charismatic in person. It probably won’t count for much. His last run ended up horribly mired in the debacle around the end of his first run, with implications that he was involved in one of the weirdest and wildest dirty politics scandals of the decade – the breaking open of the story of the Len Brown affair. 

Now he’s struggling to get his press releases on Scoop, and occasionally getting a line at the end of a Bernard Orsman piece in the Herald. I have no idea whether his grand, towering visions would be remotely possible or even desirable in a city like Auckland, where seemingly every piece of development goes over time and over budget. It’s hard to say for certain without access to polls, but it seems really unlikely he’ll get the chance to try and implement it.

But then again, maybe for him that’s okay. He got married last year, and has a seven month old baby. He insisted on showing me pictures, and seemed immensely proud. The previously neglected cafe’s redevelopment looks excellent, restored back to the old brick walls, and he makes a beautiful cup of coffee. When the roadworks finally finish, business will probably pick up again. His life has changed immensely since the last time he ran for mayor. How does he feel about those changes? For once, he only needs two words to sum it up. “It’s amazing.”


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