'Mayor Mo' could bury Len Brown
If long-time National MP Maurice Williamson runs for Auckland Mayor it would be bad news for incumbent mayor Len Brown.
Mr Williamson has not yet said whether he will throw his hat in the ring - but he is considering it - and party insiders have not ruled out the real possibility he will run in the mayoral election, which finishes on October 12.
The move would make sense from a personal perspective: Mr Williamson is 62, has been the MP for Pakuranga for 26 years and is currently a minister outside cabinet with four portfolios including minister of building and construction.
According to National Party sources, he is going nowhere in Parliament.
Mr Williamson running for mayor would also benefit National in a number of ways.
For one thing, it wants to add fresh talent to rejuvenate its line-up and the by-election which would follow his exit from Parliament would give National the chance to introduce a new face in what, for now, is a solid blue-voting electorate.
This could all change when the electoral boundaries are redrawn early next year after the census results are completed, which could see Pakuranga's boundary shift over into the Labour stronghold of Otara.
Mayoral candidates must declare by August 26 so the resulting byelection would take place this year, ahead of any boundary change.
National would relish the opportunity to work with a mayor more sympathetic to its agenda after butting heads with Mr Brown over a number of issues.
Better chance than Banks
A number of political figures on the right believe Mr Williamson would have a better chance of success than fellow MP and ACT Party leader John Banks did when he ran for Auckland mayor three years ago and was thumped by 65,000 votes (234,459 to 169,862).
Councillor Dick Quax, who represents the Howick ward which largely overlaps with the Pakuranga electorate, says Mr Williamson has a very good reputation in the area, with one of the largest majorities of any MP (almost 14,000 votes).
He says Mr Williamson doesn't carry as much "baggage" as Mr Banks in the eyes of voters, particularly those in area outside the old Auckland City Council.
"The reason why John Banks didn't do very well was for many people the amalgamation of Auckland was seen as a takeover by Auckland City," he says.
"They saw John Banks as part of that takeover by Auckland City of the rest of the region and when a credible candidate from outside of the area put his hand up a lot of the votes automatically went to Len Brown.
"A lot of voters in Pakuranga and Howick voted for him because he wasn't John Banks. That won't be the case this time."
Mr Quax says Mr Williamson will also benefit from not being associated with the unitary plan, which many Aucklanders are not happy with.
Don't split the vote
Another factor in Mr Williamson’s favour is the lack of any other quality right-wing candidates who could split the vote and reduce his chance of out-seating Mr Brown.
In 2010 Colin Craig received 43,000 votes, eroding Mr Banks’ support, while none of the other left-wing candidates had more than 4000 votes.
However, Mr Craig has since focused his attention on getting into parliament with his Conservative Party and has confirmed he will not stand for mayor this time. Mr Brown now risks having his vote cannibalised by veteran activist John Minto, who recently announced his candidacy.
Former National Party leader Don Brash says Mr Williamson seems to be the only viable centre-right candidate at this stage.
"I would be in strong support of his running," he says. "He's very good on the stump and he could make the campaign quite important. I've got a lot of respect for him."
Dr Brash says Mr Williamson's ministerial experience, which includes his current role as building and construction minister and past jobs such as transport minister and minister for local government, fit nicely with the skills required of a mayor of Auckland.
If Mr Williamson wants to run for mayor, he could hardly have picked a better time. He is currently riding a wave of publicity as a result of his recent speech supporting gay marriage, which became a YouTube sensation and even earned him an invite from US talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
While the speech itself had nothing to do with local politics, it highlights his eloquence and humour, attributes that are more important in the personality-driven mayoralty race than the often insipid general election campaign.
A number of MPs have made the transition to mayor, including Michael Laws in Wanganui, Harry Duynhoven in New Plymouth and Christine Fletcher and Mr Banks in Auckland.
But Mr Williamson's campaign wouldn't be without risks, even though insiders say he would have no trouble finding the estimated $1 million-odd campagn fund required to run against Mr Brown.
One of the biggest risks is his maverick personality, which over the years has hurt him as much as it has helped him.
For every "rainbow" speech there's been an infamous moment such as when he professed his support for road tolling. At least Mr Brown, who supports road tolling, can't campaign against him on that point.
There is also the risk Mr Williamson's candidacy could be portrayed by his opponents as “Wellington taking over Auckland”, particularly given the current tensions between the government and the council over the unitary plan. With the government's popularity declining there is a chance it could drag him down with it.
However, with the very real prospect of a Greens/Labour coalition government after the next general election, the only political leash on Mr Brown’s "compact city" ambitions could be about to come off.
This should galvanise centre-right voters to get in behind a credible candidate, even one with a reputation as somewhat of a loose cannon.