Massive mayoral upset in the capital

It was third time lucky for Andy Foster in a Wellington mayoral upset that saw ambitious first-term Mayor Justin Lester lose his seat. Laura Walters reports.

Wellingtonians’ frustrations over a lack of progress on key issues have manifested in a massive upset in the capital’s mayoral race.

Preliminary results from the local body election have long-time councillor and three-time mayoral hopeful Andy Foster taking the chain of office from one-term mayor Justin Lester.

On Sunday afternoon, it was confirmed Foster had beat Lester by a narrow margin of 26,707 votes to 26,204 – a tight margin of just 503 votes.

While the final result would not be confirmed until later in the week, after 1700 special votes had been counted, Wellington City Electoral Officer Warwick Lampp said he expected Foster to lock in the win.

If Foster is confirmed Wellington’s new mayor, he would be the first candidate to unseat a first-term mayor of Wellington for 36 years.

First-term incumbents are usually seen as a sure thing, and Lester had the added political advantage of shepherding the city through the devastation and ongoing issues stemming from the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.

Lester ran on the Labour ticket, with his aspirations of entering central party politics much-talked about.

He also unveiled the aspirational $6.4 billion transport plan Let’s Get Wellington Moving earlier in the year, which was supposed to boost Lester’s chances of re-election in a city that’s suffered through seemingly endless transport woes.

But the plan has been pulled into political scraps, and Lester’s opponents quickly labelled it “politically compromised”.

This should have been Lester’s race to lose, but a growing feeling of frustration and a mood for change gathered pace in the final weeks of the campaign.

Wellingtonians have been promised movement on transport and housing for too long, without delivery. The impacts of recent earthquakes, and the shutting of both the Town Hall and Library, have added to residents’ mounting exasperation.

The stalling is epitomised by the long-time-coming second Mt Victoria Tunnel, and the controversial Shelly Bay residential development.

These issues became pivotal to the election campaign, and Foster knew how to exploit that.

Andy Foster's mayoral campaign is mostly talked about in relation to his backing from Sir Peter Jackson. But Foster has been on the council since 1992, and this was the third time he has taken tilt at the top job. Photo: Supplied

Foster has been a councillor since 1992 and has run for mayor on two previous occasions.

When he launched his third run for the top spot, early thoughts were Foster was likely to be unsuccessful for the same reasons he had fallen short in the past.

But significant financial backing from Sir Peter Jackson, as well as the profile and name recognition that comes from being supported by one of the city’s most well-known figures, gave Foster a significant boost.

Foster raised $56,000 for his mayoral campaign, well ahead of Lester who said he raised $11,000 and told Stuff he expected to spend $20,000. Of Foster's donations, $36,000 came from a group of donors including companies associated with Jackson and Dame Fran Walsh.

Foster quickly focused in on those key issues of discontent - this, mixed with a growing anti-incumbent sentiment, was enough to unseat a mayor who was expected to breeze into a second term.

The two candidates had not released statements on Sunday afternoon, as the results were yet to be confirmed, but the preliminary results were unlikely to change.

On Saturday afternoon, Foster posted a thank you message.

“We aren’t there yet – but thank you.”

The unexpected upset comes amid a disturbingly low voter turnout. Wellingtonians rushed to hand in their forms at the last minute, resulting in long lines outside Wellington’s temporary central library.

Wellington’s final turnout was just 39.88 percent, down from 45 percent in 2016.

Meanwhile, Hutt City also experienced a change in leader, with 28-year-old Campbell Barry unseating three-term incumbent Ray Wallace.

Barry is Hutt City’s youngest mayor, and is also understood to be the country’s youngest ever mayor.

Wallace, who first joined council in 1995, won the past two elections by a landslide.

Barry ran his campaign on transport, housing, cutting frivolous council spending, and the pivotal local issue of what to do about the closure of the Naenae Pool. Wayne Guppy has retained the mayoralty in Upper Hutt.

And controversial Porirua City mayor Mike Tana was also unseated after his first term by Anita Baker .

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