Featured in Capital #82 Subscribe to get the real thing here
Tory Whanau is Wellington’s new mayor and the city’s first Māori mayor. Tory won by a landslide 34,510 votes – over double the votes received by the second-place candidate. It was the largest victory seen in 18 years.
We chatted to Tory at the very start of her campaign, when this was all ahead of her.
Tory Whanau trusts her gut feelings. When she was 20, studying full-time at university, working two jobs and about to take on a third, she became briefly fixated with Lotto.
“It was all I could think about for two weeks – and then I won.
She won $1.2 million to be precise. “I just bought one ticket, that was all I could afford.
I was looking at other people in line going, I’m going to win, you’re not. I just knew. I had a gut feeling.”
The money allowed her to take a year off uni to travel, pay off her parents’ mortgage, and support family, and – thanks to the hard word from her financially-savvy mum – has continued to give her freedom to choose her own path.
Now 38, Tory is gambling again; she’s chucking her hat into the ring for Mayor of Wellington. She was the first mayoral candidate to announce a challenge, and, judging by the media coverage of her launch, is probably a strong contender in the local government elections in October.
Tory has a good feeling about this punt too.
“[On the night of the launch] I walked up to the podium thinking, this could be bad, this could be a disaster. I’d never given a political speech before, but as I started speaking the cogs turned, and I just loved every second of it. It was like the best night of my life, it felt so right.”
In the audience were several high-profile Green MPs, who have publicly and privately given Tory their backing. While Tory is seeking endorsement from the Greens, she’s adamant that running as an independent candidate is the right move for her.
“I’ve made it very obvious that I have Green values, but I want to show that I can work with anyone, that I’m not there to push an agenda – I’m there to push a vision, and I hope it’s a shared vision, but if it’s not, then how do we get to that point?”
Tory was a key player in the Green Party from 2015 until October last year, first as their digital director and then as chief of staff. She was intimately involved in the coalition negotiations between the Greens and New Zealand First in 2017.
Though some long-term Green Party members criticised the party for the compromises made during that process, Tory is proud of the work that was done, and puts it down to good relationship management.
“Regardless of politics, I’ve always treated people with respect. You couldn’t get much more diverse than the Greens and New Zealand First working together. Doing that for three years, that was hard, but it built up that skill set for dealing with difficult conversations and difficult politics.”
On social media you may find a mock movie poster made for Tory by colleagues when she left the Greens. It depicts her at the front of the pack in heels, a blood-spattered shirt and pencil skirt, an axe dangling from her hand and the tagline “Watch out for her sting”.
So is there some truth in it? Is she tough? “Yeah, I’ve had to make hard decisions over the years, especially when it comes to team-building. It’s an unfortunate side effect of it, I daresay. When I was digital director it was all about the comms. It was a really pleasant role. When I became chief of staff my mode had to change quite a bit. It was hard.”
The same skill set could be put to good use if Tory’s successful in her bid for mayor. Wellington City Council has been beset by infighting for several years and voters may be looking for a mayor who can rally the troops and get on with the work.
Tory is confident she can get it done.
“You’re bringing together passionate people, who all want the best for Wellington, but may have different ways of getting there. It’s about consensus-building, treating every single person with respect and teaching people how to compromise.”
If she’s successful, Tory would be the first Māori mayor of Wellington. She says she wouldn’t take this responsibility lightly. “I think Wellington’s ready for that. How epic would it be to have our first indigenous mayor of Wellington?”
Tory, who is of Pakakohe and Ngā Ruahine descent, says she wasn’t always proud to be Māori.
As a five-year-old she was photographed for a story in a magazine, a kid from Cannons Creek squinting at the camera and standing side-on to show off her new school bag. The headline: Starting Fair. Do Māori pupils have an equal chance of success in our education system? Tory says that while she wasn’t conscious of it then, it was her first clue that Māori were meant to fail. Another came when a high school teacher told her she’d likely fail school certificate given her “background”.
“There’s been this lingering expectation that I would fail from all angles. But that’s what drove me to want to succeed, that’s what drove my parents to push against that and go ‘not our daughter’.”
Tory’s family moved to Patea from Porirua when she was about seven to be closer to whānau.
“It was: Patea Māori Club, freezing works, everyone was related. I loved it. It was peak community. It was safe; we would walk to school every day. A real strong Māori vibe, we were proud to be Māori.”
Her parents had very little money in their early years, and were determined to make sure their kids had a different life.
“It was a really loving upbringing, but money was tight. They didn’t want me to have it that tough, so education was always front of their minds.”
While Patea was great for giving the kids a community, the local high school wasn’t going to cut it for education, says Tory.
“They decided early on they were going to send me away and that was tough for all of us because we were such a connected family.”
Tory’s parents, who still live in Patea, made big sacrifices to send Tory to New Plymouth Girls’ High. Tory’s Dad moved to Australia to work in mining for several years to make it happen.
“Getting me to succeed was always the priority, every parent wants that, but I count my blessings. They put me first constantly, they went without so I could have the best.”
After that Lotto windfall, Tory took a year off, but she did return to university, completing a film and media studies degree and then a postgrad diploma in business.
She says that while she’s grateful for what her parents did and where that boarding school education got her, it also undermined her cultural identity.
“It was chipped away at over a number of years. I was surrounded by girls from wealthy farming families. These girls were lovely. Some of them were my sisters, but there was a level of ignorance. They would make comments, not intending to hurt me, but offhand comments.”
Tory recounts conversations about the Māori All Blacks and Māori political protest (including protests her koro was involved in) that tore down what Māori were doing; to this day she regrets not standing up to this casual racism.
“I was the only Māori in the class, and I felt so small. I didn’t know how to participate in the conversation. I had no backing, I had no confidence, and I felt small.”
It was her now former husband – still one of her best friends – who challenged her perceptions of herself and set her on a path to reclaim her culture and identity. She started learning te reo Māori again, talking to her koro – well-known Taranaki activist Rongo Tupatea Kahukuranui – about politics, and gradually restored some pride in her whakapapa.
Her campaign website spells out her commitment to including mana whenua in council decisions. But asked where she stands on the development of Shelly Bay, she’s firm that it’s not for council to meddle in.
“I’m going to support mana whenua, I’m not comfortable wading in. I’d rather let their internal processes play out first. As tangata whenua, I feel uncomfortable taking a preferred position while it’s playing out.”
Tory is very willing to talk about Wellington’s other problems though, and has a list of the priority issues down pat: action on housing, homelessness, personal safety, and climate change, accelerating infrastructure fixes, and supporting businesses in their recovery from covid.
She is currently a political consultant – some might say a lobbyist – but says if she was elected, the council role would be her full-time gig.
She’s realistic that the city has a rough ride ahead.
“It’s going to get tough over the next few years. If we see Let’s Get Welly Moving come through there’s going to be major disruption on our streets. She foresees a communications challenge making Wellingtonians “comfortable” with the disruption, communicating the vision behind it.
“And who knows where covid’s going. We’re going to need some strong leadership around that as well.”
Asked why she wants the job – and why mayor rather than a shot at Parliament – Tory reckons it’s about local community.
“There’s something so exciting about leading the community, the bringing together of your town, of your city. I feel I have the skill to be able to do that. In Wellington we’re quite progressive, so it’s a city I’d be proud to lead.”