The making of a mayor

Reese's all-or-nothing bid for top job pays off

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 08:04 11/11/2013
rachel reese
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ
CHAINS OF OFFICE: New Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese surveys the council chambers after being sworn-in last month.
Rachel Reese
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
NEW PROJECT: Rachel Reese and her partner Richard Harden on their Nelson building site.

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The porcelain veneer of Nelson's new mayor hides the cracks of a recently fought tough campaign which was an all-or-nothing bout for the red chair of power, writes Tracy Neal .

Rachel Reese only decided to stand for council six months before the 2007 election, so her political career has been comparatively short.

But the mayoral gold chain which gleamed like a hard-won trophy at her recent swearing in ceremony has been firmly in her sights for the better part of this year.

Some would say winning it has been her ambition for much of the past six years.

Since sweeping into office as a councillor on the Hands Up wave, which peaked soon after the team was installed in 2007 and then retreated, the now 48-year-old has become an adept politician.

Nelson's first female mayor recalls how the decision to seek public office was not an easy one, made more difficult by her parents' warning that getting elected would be tough. Having grown up in a household of expectation and achievement, Ms Reese has a fear of failure.

But the Hands Up selectors who shoulder-tapped her prior to the 2007 poll were persistent, and Ms Reese ultimately said yes, but she was anything but a political novice. She already had a background working with local government in her field of resource management consulting.

Reflecting on that first election win, and after being thrust straight into the limelight as Kerry Marshall's deputy in 2007, that election day had been really hard because she was not a good loser. She also was not sure if she would have been elected outside the Hands Up banner.

Three years on, Ms Reese and her predecessor Aldo Miccio, who also swept in on the Hands Up wave, were among the few that clung on and who then went head-to-head for the mayoralty in 2010.

"We had an outside chance at mayor on the first go," Ms Reese says. Her campaign manager then, Bill Dahlberg, reckons he knew it would take two attempts to get it - the first was needed to warm up the public to the idea of a female mayor.

Ms Reese's knack for unravelling hyper-complicated matters, which raised eyebrows around the council table more than once this past term, stems from skills developed on how to construct arguments in her profession as a resource management consultant and trained mediator. Despite occasions when it appeared she was being blocked from progressing ideas, or criticised for seeking political leverage, she never felt she was being drowned by the opposition.

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"I never felt I had to fight for air. I'm very capable at contributing to that type of forum. It's a place I'm comfortable with," Ms Reese said of the tenor of discussion at times. She says it helped being raised in a family where debate was encouraged. Her late father Jim, a former partner in engineering firm Hadley and Robinson, stood for council once but that was as far as his local body influence went.

"I was brought up in a family where there was healthy debate around the dinner table and we were encouraged to test our ideas. We were required to have reasons for our thinking. Plus, I naturally have an inquisitive mind."

Rachel Hadley Reese is a bricks and mortar Otago girl, but is proud to call herself a Nelsonian. She attended the integrated girls' Anglican school, St Hilda's Collegiate School in Dunedin, but against the school's and her parents' advice, left at the end of the sixth form (year 12) and headed off to Otago University to tackle a commerce degree.

"I started university at age 16 and graduated at 19. I was young, but I met a man - that was part of the motivation. He was a few years older and he was going so I had to hurry things along. But I'd had enough - school and I were not getting on that well."

At 19, armed with a Bachelor of Commerce and high hopes of a job, she went with then-boyfriend Philip Reese, a metallurgical engineer, to central Queensland.

The best chance of a job was teaching small business management and accounting to members of the Queensland police force, at the TAFE (technical and further education) college.

A shift in career focus happened when Ms Reese's son Thomas, now 26, was born after they had moved to Perth. He was followed a couple of years later by Sophie, now 24. A transfer to Auckland followed, and then a move back to Australia and a new life in Melbourne, which allowed Ms Reese to develop a business with a friend refurnishing homes in preparation for sale.

The big city life became too difficult for raising a family, especially as Thomas and Sophie neared college age, so they decided on a shift back to New Zealand. Wellington was a fleeting option for its career opportunities, but Nelson was chosen in the end for what it offered, plus its proximity to the Marlborough Sounds and Arapawa Island where the Hadley family has property. "It's a really special place to me. It's where I like to go."

The move to Nelson happened about 16 years ago. The Reeses bought an old central city villa and began operating a B&B.

"It wasn't something I essentially chose to do. I'm not a morning person so it was a struggle."

Ms Reese had considered a career move into law but the more she got into resource management advocacy the less it became an option. "Had I been in another centre I would have studied law but my tie to Nelson was too strong."

Her marriage ended suddenly in 2003, just before she was due to sit final exams for a graduate diploma in dispute resolution. She delayed sitting the exam until the following year.

"It was very tough. It was a very sudden marriage break-up - at the time I didn't see it coming. You do get burnt by that, and I'm not good at surprises."

She was able to apply some of what she was learning in order to get through it. "I think learning about negotiation, mediation and the dynamics of how to make decisions is critical not just to working life but personal life also. I apply an enormous amount of it all the time. In the end it becomes something you do automatically."

She has also applied that thinking and skills to the part she has played in the life of her partner Richard Harden's son in recent years.

Joel, 16, was ever-present during the campaign and was among the proud supporters on election day. Thomas, a hydro-geologist who lives in Perth and Sophie, who has recently graduated with a degree in law and politics, were at the time in Turkey.

"Building new families with lots of different people in them takes time, but I come from a very inclusive, welcoming extended family so that helps," Ms Reese says.

She has learned through her own experience, and that as a mediator for care-of-children agreements, that the relationship with a child as a step-parent evolves over time.

"I don't think you ever take on someone else's child. As a step-parent you have to respect that as much as you care and love the person in your life, that child has two parents who love him and care for him and you don't want another person getting in the way of that love."

Mr Harden, a former professional English cricketer who now operates a business in Nelson as a financial adviser, had a higher profile during the recent election campaign than in the previous two. This time he managed Ms Reese's campaign, which she says would not have happened without him.

The pair met about a decade ago at a "cold start dinner" and for the past couple of years have been running the gauntlet of trying to get a house built. "We were in our late 30s and each on our own when we met. Richard, being Richard, did a themed "cold start dinner" and we were all given parts to play. It was a 1920s speakeasy theme and my part was emailed to me - I was to be his wife."

Twice during the election campaign Ms Reese alluded to the slight complication of the most appropriate way to refer to Mr Harden, who had to settle for "the mayor's partner". He however, joked afterwards that he might have to settle for "mayoress".

Marriage remained an institution she respected, but that decision was not hers alone. Mr Harden did, however, let slip that it was not as if she hadn't been asked.

The high standards Ms Reese expects around the council table are evident in her every-day demeanour. The lengths she went to to make the council's swearing-in ceremony a success extended to the right colour blue of her dress (ultraviolet) to match the brilliant gold of the mayoral chain. Even the floral arrangement in the council chamber matched.

The Jane Daniels suit worn by Ms Reese for the occasion was chosen especially by the designer who matched up the outfit from a photo of the new mayor, after Nelson retail store Jays stepped in to help. Ms Reese got a call within an hour to say there was a suit on its way to Nelson.

Ms Reese is determined to raise standards of conduct in the council chamber, despite the occasions she was deemed to have triggered the odd fracas, such as a recent high-profile "walk-out" of a council meeting.

Ms Reese led the charge out of a chaotic meeting over the proposed sale of council land for a large commercial development, which annulled the meeting through lack of a quorum. Along with support for the move she also received a share of criticism, but countered it by saying councillors were missing critical information on a proposal vital to the city's future, and the meeting had to be stopped.

She said conduct at the council table needed to improve and personal attacks would not be tolerated.

"Standards of behaviour at the council table have to be high. They are privileged positions and they have to be treated with respect and humility.

"What I saw when council meetings degenerated into name-calling reflected poorly on the whole council. This is a $1.2 billion enterprise that requires good governance. That means treating other elected members with respect."

Ms Reese does not think she is tough, so much as she is tough on herself. "I care about the outcomes and what they mean to people.

"I'm actually a softie, to be honest. I'm also very forgiving and I don't hold grudges. You can't if you want to be successful in politics.

"You can only learn from the past - you can't live in it."

Ms Reese praised those who voted for the council they had installed. "The community has done a great job electing this council. It's a good mix of people with diverse views although it's missing ethnic diversity and we're conscious of that.

"I know there will be good healthy debate ahead but as long as that's around the issues that will be OK."

Ms Reese views the job as taking longer than three years to do properly. "I do see this as being longer than a three-year term. There's a lot to be gained by approaching it that way and three years is not a long time in local government.

"We need to make some major changes to the long-term plan which needs a complete re-work. A second term would allow me to think strategically and do things that I think Nelson needs to do in order to move forward."

- Nelson

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