A Capital Letter: Paul Eagle’s power play raises question of Wellington mayoral bid

OPINION: Senior Wellington journalist Georgina Campbell’s fortnightly column looks closely at issues in the capital.

When Labour Rongotai MP Paul Eagle showed up at Wellington Mayor Andy Foster’s drinks last week, one could speculate he all but had a tape measure out eyeing up the office.

But if you ask Eagle outright whether he intends on running for the mayoralty in next year’s local body elections, he says no.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t seriously considered it though.

Last week he dabbled in a bit of power play by showing up at a Long Term Plan council meeting on Tuesday evening.

He kept a low profile and sat towards the back of the public gallery.

People joked: “The Crown observer has arrived.”

After the meeting, Foster hosted drinks on Level 8 outside his office to celebrate signing off the Long Term Plan for public consultation.

A bottle of bubbly was popped. Councillors, the executive leadership team, and Foster all raised a glass.

Foster ended up inviting Eagle too, but the whole affair was very awkward.

Rumours have been flying for months over who might put their hat in the ring for the mayoralty next year.

Former Green Party MP Gareth Hughes is one of them, but he told the Herald he is enjoying life away from politics after a decade in Parliament.

“I have been talking to people how I can best help the city I love as it struggles with a large number of problems but I’m not planning on running for Mayor of Wellington.”

Meanwhile, current city councillor Jill Day has joined the Labour Party.

Day found her politics aligned with Labour and she wanted to support the party’s direction ahead of the 2020 general election.

But she says she hasn’t considered seeking Labour’s endorsement for a mayoral bid.

City councillor Tamatha Paul said she didn’t intend on running for the mayoralty and instead wanted to continue her work by securing another term as a councillor.

Thomas Nash said he was focused on doing a good job as a regional councillor and leading Greater Wellington’s climate work. He said he was not planning to run for mayor.

Former Wellington mayoral candidate Nick Leggett isn’t coming back for round two and ruled out a bid.

Despite Eagle’s apparent public reluctance, his name continues to create waves of speculation.

He is no stranger to the council, having first been elected as a Southern Ward councillor in 2010 before becoming deputy mayor in 2016.

When Annette King retired from politics, Eagle went on to win the Rongotai electorate in 2017.

Becoming an MP was a life-long dream of his. Eagle’s father, a Methodist minister of 50 years, ingrained in him the values of caring, serving, and treating people fairly.

Family is important to Eagle. He lives in Island Bay with his wife and their 5-year-old son Tamarangi, who is adopted.

Being an adopted child himself, Eagle sees his current position as an opportunity to reform adoption legislation.

He wants to make the process more open and ensure it connects children to their past while helping support their future wellbeing.

But Eagle has also found Parliament to be a very different place compared to his freedom as a councillor. Being a backbench MP for a party in government came as a shock to the system.

While he has settled in a bit more since those early days, the mayoralty remains an attractive proposition in the sense he could once again have a more hands-on role in decision making.

He is confident in his personal brand, which is bolstered by winning Rongotai last year by the third highest margin in the country.

Eagle certainly has name recognition and is known as a formidable campaigner.

Winning the mayoralty is one thing, the real battle begins the minute a person is elected.

Whoever lands the city’s top job next year will have an overwhelming task ahead of them considering the heavy burden of the city’s crumbling water infrastructure, stalled transport plans, and seismic risks.

Not to mention uniting a group of councillors behind a shared vision.

In many ways Wellington City Council has become a poisoned chalice.

It might seem a bit early to be speculating on who will be vying for the mayoralty next year, but Foster’s struggles in the role throws the contest wide open.

As for Foster himself, he told the Herald it was far too early for any official announcement about whether he intended to stand for the mayoralty again.

He said he is enjoying the role and is fully committed to building a city with strong infrastructure, that’s environmentally resilient, economically vibrant, affordable to live in and lots of fun.

“If people take that as a campaign opener, I am not going to argue”, he said.

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