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Why Auckland’s 22-Year-Old Mayor Candidate is Finally Being Taken Seriously

We spent a day with Chlöe Swarbrick who, according to a recent poll, is coming fourth in the race to be Auckland's mayor.

by James Borrowdale
21 September 2016, 12:00am

Chlöe Swarbrick (right) with Tim Batt: up early and campaigning on Facebook. All images by author

I first met Chlöe Swarbrick below her friend's Kingsland flat, as she was about to conduct a live Facebook interview with comedian Tim Batt. The scene was instantly familiar to anyone who's lived in a flat of creative 20-somethings. The paraphernalia of shared living—guitars, amps, records, gaming consoles—lay scattered about a small living room with slightly too much furniture. An iPhone attached to a tripod pointed at the table in the corner, where a framed hand-drawn portrait of Drake kept a "Vote for Chlöe" t-shirt from slipping to the floor as she addressed her followers.

With almost zero funds, Chlöe's campaign is run the way one might move house. It relies on the donated labour of friends, borrowed cars, moments snatched from between work commitments, and cheese toasties devoured in front of open laptops. There's also the Internet: except for the five or so minutes the connection cut out—something to do with the EFTPOS machine in a shop downstairs—Chlöe gesticulated as if conducting an orchestra, delineating her policies to her online audience on everything from the housing crisis to the limits of council power.

Chlöe, of course, is only 22 years old. She sees this as the least salient fact about her, but the media and her opponents seem, she says, to see as almost the only fact about her. "It has become a joke with my friends when now every time someone says my name it's, 'Chlöe Swarbrick comma 22.' I have honestly never been so aware of my age in my life. I just feel like it's so irrelevant to so many of the things we could be talking about."

Chlöe feels her age, in the eyes of some, has overshadowed both her achievements and her policies. Despite the poll result putting her in fourth place, it seems the established media is still content to ignore her. The New Zealand Herald published an insert asking candidates to spell out their visions. Even though they found room for three candidates trailing her in the polls, there was no space for Chlöe. "All I can really say is that it is unfortunate and I'm not sure what their reasons or motivations for excluding me from that were, but it doesn't really make sense," she told me.

Not that she's discouraged. "You can do anything with confidence and Google," she offered, not long after we first met. The latest polls have proven a boost to her confidence. Chlöe maintains she can close the gap on leading candidate Phil Goff by the time voting closes on October 8, which would be an insane upset. He's currently 33 points ahead.

When Chlöe first entered the race, it wasn't so much about winning as it was about expanding the conversation. From her quiver of figures, she's fond of pulling out the fact only 34 percent of eligible voters participated in 2013's mayoral elections. Initially, she hoped her presence in the race would inspire those who, like her, don't own homes and who have debilitating student loans to actively participate in choosing who runs Auckland. As her campaign progressed and she became increasingly dismayed by the other politicians up for election—politicians, she says, merely offering more of the same—her objectives changed.

"What I do represent is a definitive change in the way of doing things, but because I look different than everybody else—I'm younger, and I dress worse because I'm poor and have like three outfits," Chlöe tells me. "That's probably a little bit scary for some people, the idea that they might have to challenge their way of thinking."

Chlöe's next engagement of the day was talking at the University of Auckland, where until very recently she was studying a law degree and a BA in philosophy. Eighty or so students filled the lecture theatre to hear her give a something halfway between a TED talk, and a traditional political stump speech.

Chlöe makes her case at the University of Auckland.

If Chlöe has a "base", these people are probably it—young, politically engaged, eager to hear how she plans to increase development and bring down house prices. But young people also constitute one of the demographics least likely to vote and convincing older voters—typically homeowners—to vote for her means asking them to vote against self-interest.

Watching her speak, I wondered how beneficial she thinks meetings such as this one are. Isn't she forever just preaching to the converted, or trying to convert the damned? Chlöe wasn't sure if, today, she'd won any more voters. "More than anything what it did was just stay true to the purpose of this campaign, which is to engage people," she explained. Her plan, in its simplest form, is to bring politics back to talking to people.

I wanted to ask the one person in the lecture theatre who fell outside that demographic, the one person over 30 who had come to see her speak. Terry Moore, 68, was the only homeowner in the room. He told me he found Chlöe more "thoughtful" than the other candidates, around whom there is "a lot of unease." But Terry wasn't wholly convinced: "She's only part way into it. She's probably only 10 percent into the whole mix of all the issues, but the way she's done that first 10 percent is good. The others are avoiding addressing the real issues."

Meeting a protestor from the Tamaki Housing Group

Chlöe argues her age, her lack of home ownership, her jobs—a former journalist at bFM, current publisher and editor whatsgood.co.nz, future café owner—give her a more nuanced and sympathetic view on those issues. "The struggle is real for people who have just got out of uni, for those families who are living in their cars, for so many Aucklanders, and I just really don't think that's actually understood by so many of the candidates," she told me. "That's where the different perspective thing comes in. Like all of them own a home."

If the housing crisis floats above this city like a spectre—benign if you own a home, malevolent if you don't—its transport network is its creaking foundation, and Chlöe unleashed a stream of invective at the traffic as we headed east out of the city for her last appointment of the day. "Jesus Christ, this is such a mess." We were on our way to Glen Innes, where the Tamaki Housing Group was occupying the front lawn of a boarded-up state home that the activists said was erroneously diagnosed as a "P house."

Chlöe is beating fellow candidate and prominent activist Penny Bright in the polls

Chlöe mingled while I ate the pumpkin and bacon soup and bread rolls the protesters had put on. Penny Bright, an "investigative activist" and another competitor for in the mayoral crown, marched about in a beret. The cops turned up briefly, and then left. The light faded as the last of the tents went up, and the little hubbub of the demonstration—all puffer jackets and gumboots—was the only activity on the street. Portaloos were delivered for those staying the night in tents, and tyres squealed somewhere in the neighbourhood.

Later than night, on the drive back to the city, Chlöe came back to the idea of who she's trying to speak for, and to, in this race. "It's [about reaching] the people for whom real representation would mean so much, but it's just so not on their radar," she explained. As always, her only tool is engagement. At the demonstration she had spent a long time chatting with Loela Rauti, who for five years has been fighting eviction from the neighbouring property she has lived in for two decades. I asked Rauti for her impressions of Chlöe. "She's clever, she's here. I give her that... She's here, and she's trying to understand."

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