Even by the standards of a local body election – the rictus smiles, the clashing fonts and disastrous colour schemes – Emmett Hussey stopped traffic. Every three years, candidate billboards for mayors, councillors and miscellaneous offices cluster several deep on Auckland’s public reserves, no man’s lots, traffic islands. Everyone is grinning, and these grins contain multitudes – a nervous apprehension, a self-satisfied surety, a fanatical zeal. Hussey is not grinning – his jaw is slightly slack, his cheeks sunken, his eyes mournful and ancient. It could be a mugshot. It could be grief.
Emmett Hussey For Mayor equals (“=”) DEMOCRACY SANITY COMMON SENSE. Most candidates opt for their logo or a four-to-five word slogan, tops: Emmett Hussey details two entire policies. “1 / REFERENDUM ON PROPOSED UNITARY PLAN (1 million more people crammed into Auckland with infrastructure & housing that is under stress = MADNESS; 2/ STOP HOUSING AND LAND SELL OFF TO OVERSEAS INVESTORS”. I slowed down to rubberneck, and so did the cars in front of me. You had to come to a standstill just to read the thing.
At least it makes you want to know more.
Emmett Hussey also has a website, though it’s an overwhelming relic. His manifesto is on a rabbit-hole subpage, rather than front and centre. He promises to STRONGLY petition government to change immigration policy, to encourage decentralization. IF HE BECOMES MAYOR OF AUCKLAND HE WILL DONATE HALF HIS SALARY THROUGH A TRUST FUND TO CAUSES HE DEEMS WORTHY. In a pledge that’s either rousing or profoundly concerning, he promises to strive…”to spend council’s money as though it were my own money”.
The executive summary is at the bottom where you might expect it at the top. There are four reasons why he’s running for the mayoralty. The first: Pure Anger. The banner of the top of the webpage is a placid stock image of a North American lakeside in autumn.
Emmett Hussey is 67 years old, and has never been involved in politics in his life, and has minded his own business, and now he is running for the highest office in this country that any one man can put himself forward for.
A quick word on Auckland and its election situation, first – because as the biggest city in a remote country, it’s placed itself at the centre of the known universe and there’s an assumption that the world, let alone the rest of New Zealand, is intimately concerned with its political machinations. A population of about 1.5 million used to be split into several separate city and district councils, and in 2010, these were merged into a “Super City”. And now, there's one mayor to rule them all.
In 2013, seventeen people are going for the position, including Hussey. The incumbent is Len Brown, the former mayor of Manukau City (Auckland’s southern suburbs). Brown has this in the bag – eternally disappointing his centre-left supporters, loathed as a crony socialist by the right, the well-advised and charismatic little man will go on to win the election, beating his nearest rival by some 50,000 votes. That’s John Palino, an American-born businessman and actor who becomes the de facto candidate of the right in a will-lose campaign, an easy second place. He exudes the wooden, Romney-like charm of an honest broker. Auckland’s business elite could have done a lot worse.
Both Brown and Palino have money and machinery behind them, but neither are prerequisites to taking a tilt at the mayorality. Getting involved in national politics incurs organizational and administrative hurdles beyond the reach of any independent candidate. Gunning for the top job in Auckland, the possibility of heading up the country’s one city of scale? - applying is free, and so are dreams. Auckland is big, but not intimidating. You can get signs up. Get your face out there, smiling or not.
I go to a Living Wage candidates’ debate in late September. It’s a small room at a Catholic Diocese building in Ponsonby, on a cold night. Neither Brown nor Palino will deign to turn up. It’s a battle of the minnows.
I’ve left Hussey a phone message (his voice is reedy and querulous, not angry – I’d been nervous to even bother him, for first impressions that should be obvious). The room is almost as packed with contenders as it is members of the public. There is John Minto, the grumpy and chiseled face of Auckland’s activist left. There is Uesifili Unasa, a candid and compassionate Manukau pastor with the challenge of getting one of the city’s poorest and least-engaged communities out to vote.
There is Penny Bright, a career protester who has a creditable record of questioning privatisation and nepotistic consultancy in local government (counterpoint: her other bête noires are fluoridated water and Agenda 21). There is a timid and softly-spoken postal worker from the Communist League. There is a jowly, swaggering ex-developer standing on a “Roads First” ticket who appears to oppose any form of minimum wage. There is a woman who redirects every question put to her into advertorial for Dark Horse, her ‘e-university’ founded on a philosophy of ‘private entrepreneur education’.
There is no sign of Emmett Hussey.
Another week goes by before I manage to peg him down. I leave messages, I email his Xtra account. In the meantime, his website goes mysteriously dormant and his billboards turn up with their middles torn out. It could be a fan. It could be a rival. Quite reasonably, it could someone offended by the red-letter rhetoric about people from overseas. I’m more worried it’s him giving up. Politicians in this city are either doing so well they don’t need to turn out anymore, or doing so badly they need every chance they get. Where is he?
I call through on a hunch and catch him one Monday afternoon. Any time works for him. He apologises – I’ve fallen through the cracks, but I won’t need to be juggled around. For one Wednesday evening, I’m going to be his media scrum.
You reach Emmett Hussey’s one-bedroom flat through a winding drive to the non blue-chip side of Meadowbank. The suburb’s in a gentrifying twilight of the very young or the very old – BMXes and mobility scooters. His Toyota Town Ace juts out onto Cruickshank Crescent, laden with tools, flanked by ladders, and tinted with crudely-drawn editorial cartoons. Bankers and cowboys stuff bits of New Zealand in their back pockets. A dim, perturbed John Key sees more clamber over the mountains and sack the land, and every surface offers up a new phrase. RENTERS FOR LIFE WITH FOREIGN LANDLORD, OR OWN YOUR OWN HOME. The rear window cannot contain itself: HOW DARE YOU…THE CARPETBAGGERS HAVE ARRIVED. Carpetbaggers, Cruickshank, Emmett Hussey. I feel like I should be setting foot on the plantation of a villainous fictional Southern aristocrat.
When he answers the door, he’s younger than you think – even at 67, sprightly and wiry and restless. His hair and his face have none of the pallor of his pictures. The billboard photo has stacked on an easy 20 years. He’s smiling when I arrive, and when I leave. There’s a small TV, modest bookshelves, a couple of op-shopped objets d’art on the walls. Six CDs, milky tea, not much polemic.
He apologises for the website. “It’s been hacked a few times. I’ve got a computer, but I battle with it. I’m a greenhorn at all this stuff, and I hadn’t checked it for a couple of weeks. I’ve got some people managing it for me in India.” He’d confused the domain name with the hosting – paid for one when had to pay for two. If this caused a lull, it’s not one he was aware of – he’s been working up to this in six months.
“I actually started up a group called the Carpetbaggers up in March, and I took a full-page ad in the Herald. It cost $17,000 and I had so many people ring me up and I took their names and email addresses down and sent out updates every so often. I started a group of about 150 of us that way.” A small army, a decent mailing list. The Carpetbaggers are Emmett’s organization– confusingly, they’re also the enemy. “After the Civil War in America, the Southern States were broke and some of the northerners came down with these carpet-bags full of money. They were coming down and taking advantage of these Southern people, and they were buying things and property up and they were very much hated. The term for carpetbaggers is ‘outsiders taking advantage of the locals.’”
But, then Emmett’s a sort of outsider himself. He made his way up from Dunedin, to Christchurch, to Auckland at 18 or so. “Done a bit of everything. Door-to-door salesman, worked for Crown Lynn pottery for a bit. In my day, you could go from one job to another job. Today’s more restricted.” He became a sort of jack-of-all-trades handyman, even if he doesn’t have any of the certificates or tickets he’d need today. “It’s made it harder for a guy like me, but I still get plenty of work because there’s lots of guys that can’t do what I do. Builders can’t do the full range of stuff you’ve got to do.” He had a bit to do with Rotaract, met Dove-Myer Robinson on an excursion to Mission Bay when the fierce, independent little mayor was mid-stride. And he stayed a lone wolf, and he always read the Herald. And then he started to notice what was happening to the houses he oddjobbed.
“’I noticed in my work that I fixing up things for people who owned several homes but weren’t New Zealanders. Some of them were young people who had never done a day’s work. I thought this was quite wrong, and this is before I realized it was also pushing the price of housing up. The young people, it’s not fair on them. But I do agree, it’s two factors. One of them is the supply, but just as important, or I think, even more so, is the fact that overseas investors and wealthy immigrants are coming to New Zealand and they’re taking advantage of the situation. Now they’re supposed to bring their money here and have a business plan and put it into business, and instead of that they’ve been putting it into real estate, and it’s just not fair on the young people. It’s so unfair on them and of course a lot of them are going to auctions and getting outbid foreigners. And it’s not just a racial thing, because they’re not all Asian – mind you, predominantly Asian in Auckland – but it’s the whole works. Australian, British, American – you name it. A lot of them are doing it so yeah.”
He does this. The run-on sentences and paragraphs when he fires off his Internet missives are hard-going, but they’re also an unfiltered picture of the man. Emmett doesn’t flare up, or yell – but he gets consumed.
His dual concerns are foreign investors (‘hard-working’ immigrants are okay: “My philosophy is “you cut the skin, we all bleed the same colour blood’”) and the Auckland Unitary Plan. He’s done concrete, laid drains, installed amenities. He can talk up a storm about infrastructure. “I’m sure you’ve got to intensify to a degree, but they’re not even planning for the effect it’ll have. Where’s the schools? Where’s the hospitals? Watercare says they’re not going to cope with water reticulation. I’ve talked to the Residents from Ratepayers from Mangere Bridge. They’re very worried about intensification. They’re worried about more sewage, the midges coming back.” It’s important, but patently not inspiring.
The Hussey policy planks are pretty simple. There’s a lot of ‘strongly petitioning’ central government – but also promises of austerity, an infrastructure tax on wealthy new migrants that may take a little more implementation each time you stop and think about it. Hussey’s vision seems glum and wounded to a voter used to feel-good futurism and bribes (“Sort out the roads first,” he insists. “Sort out rapid rail, get the costs sorted out and interest rates, then we can get into the fun things.”) He doesn’t even make belt-tightening some heroic act of Tea Party liberation theology. It just has to be bloody done.
But, here’s the thing – he’s been having a really good time. At 67, he could’ve bought a sports car, or taken a world trip. He’s spent $60,000 of life savings on this campaign. He’s experienced public speaking for the first time in his life.
“I’ve hated being in the limelight. I had to go and do my first public speech three weeks ago and I had to go to the Ellerslie Residents and Ratepayers, and I was literally shaking like a leaf. That’s the moment when I came closest to pulling out, but I’d spent too much money.” But he did the University Quad a couple of days ago, and they were good kids. People wanted their photos with him. “They take it serious, but they have a bit of fun as well.”
And with that, he invites me to see the campaign budget – pen, paper and ringbinder, meticulous ruled lines for every expense. And then, he shows me his candid shots.
When Emmett was getting his signs laid up, they invited him to play around with the canvas of his van and take some more photos. In the results, he cries animated tears of blood, curses, and gives John Key the finger. In an instant, he is better, funnier and stranger than the bad Twitter and Facebook parodies that he’s spawned will ever be.
Why not this? Why the pure anger instead? “I think it is right for me. I’m just so angry underneath that Len Brown and his mates are running slipshod over us. I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think foreign people coming here should get priority over us, and that’s where the whole thing stinks.”
And the mask slips. Not just the uneasy way that “foreign investors” has suddenly crept into “foreign people”, but the mention of the incumbent mayor. Spry, wiry and a self-invented man of the common touch. Bad infrastructure makes Emmett Hussey frustrated, but Leonard Brown makes him seethe.
“As a person, I don’t know him very well…but for what he’s doing to Auckland…I-I-I just despise him for it.” There’s a stammer to his voice. “He’s going to destroy Auckland.”
Could he beat him? “I’m not gonna win. I’d have to have my head up in the clouds. I know that. I’m doing it because you’ve got to stand up and be heard when you care about something, and you’ve got to make people aware. I can say to myself comfortably when this is over that I’ll go back to what I was doing before and pull my horns back in again.” That means no settling for local boards, for a plush spot on a District Health Board. Six or so weeks to make his impression, and then out.
His promotional material advertises him as a natural-born stirrer. Before I go, I ask him the wildest thing he’s ever done. He pauses for thought.
“This one time, I lost a bet and I had to dress up in a top hat and all these clothes and walk around Parnell for an hour or so. Things like that. That was a hundred years ago, but things like that. I must admit, when I was younger I used to go to a few parties and we used to do some crazy stuff. When I was a young fulla I had a Fiat 500. We had a party and we had to see how many people had to get into the Fiat 500. We got about 15 in. I could only work the foot pedals, someone else changed gears, someone else had to steer!”
Emmett Hussey is in West Auckland for a candidate’s meeting, and he strikes up conversation with a builder in the throng. A builder! And he talks of services and facilities, and how in the Unitary Plan Auckland has decided to construct itself without foundations, and how this lack of infrastructure will be its undoing, and any builder worth his salt would understand what it means, but this builder just wants to talk about the rugby, and keeps asking if he saw it. He’s the kind of easy meet-and-greet subject that Brown or Palino would kill for, and nail. And Emmett is trying to get through with a serious message, and the guy’s only keen on trivia, and he just can’t understand it.
The postal ballot for Auckland’s mayoralty closes on Saturday the 12th of October. It’s one of the city’s worst voter turnouts on record. Emmett Hussey places behind Brown, Palino, Bright, Minto, Unasa, and a man who stands on Tamaki Drive on weekdays wearing sandwich boards about spying. He gets 2,974 votes. Three days later, it’s revealed that Brown had been having an affair with a younger woman for the past two years. They’d had sex on council property, making their blushing excuses to security guards while, half a city and a world away, Emmett reeled at the city’s decline from his modest flat.
I ring him up to commiserate and debrief. He sounds softer, sadder. “I thought I’d get 10,000, not 3,000. I was adamant I was never going to win, but I thought I’d be able to get out the protest vote. You don’t need to come first but you always think you can make a big hit.” He thinks Brown should probably go - he feels vindicated on his own suspicions about the man, and the affair was on the people’s clock - but I don’t detect the same fire.
A few things happened. There’s always someone with more money who can get up more signs. Speaking engagements were few and far between – Emmett was running for mayor, and he didn’t even know when they were on (an odd, depressing problem that plenty of candidates seemed to have). Mostly, it’s just the apathy, and that’s what’s rattled him.
“I misjudged it. I thought those two things – the Unitary Plan, the overseas investors would resonate. And they didn’t. In the end, I feel like I wasn’t able to affect anything. I’m not apathetic myself – I’ll never call myself that. But I am disheartened.” He’s getting back to the handyman work. Business as usual.
There’s been plenty of high-minded writing about the civic virtue of running for local government, but not much on why people do it when they’re bound to lose, the kamikaze mentality of throwing everything at a lost cause. And for a while there, Emmett left his comfort zone and did just that. He wasn’t there to persuade you, but he was out to leave an imprint, a nagging doubt if you were one of the few who ticked and mailed in their election form. Maybe everything’s not okay. It preyed on your fears and your annoyances, including the ones you weren’t so proud of. And maybe that’s still there.
Len Brown shakes off the bad news and forges ahead with a new term and expansive plans. The 2013 candidate profiles, successful and unsuccessful, lie in state. One day in early November, www.carpet-baggers.co.nz slips into a broken-link hiatus, and Emmett Hussey’s six months of fame – the Photoshop tears of blood, the pure anger and the cult glory – becomes a grey, comforting urban legend.