Jan 25, 2021 Society
At just 25, he’s already managed two successful high-profile election campaigns. Just don’t ask him the recipe of his political secret sauce.
Leroy Beckett is sitting in a Malaysian restaurant in Newmarket, listing the potential narratives for this story. One is that it all started with his grandparents. They were environmentalists who gave him a taste for activism by taking him to protests when he was 10. He’s been volunteering for the Green Party since he was in high school.
Another is that he was diagnosed with cancer when he was 14. He was days away from dying when his GP realised his breathing difficulties were a sign of something worse than asthma and sent him to the hospital. He went straight into the ICU then underwent three years of chemotherapy before being given a clean bill of health. His dad said he should make the most of his second chance at life, before conceding that was a lot of pressure to put on a teenager.
These would be good origin stories, but Beckett is being facetious. He doesn’t really believe in narratives. He’s sceptical of the idea that things fit together and make sense. The man who helped engineer one of New Zealand’s most audacious progressive political victories of the last few decades is actually a bit of a cynic. “In activist circles, we talk a lot about the story of self, what brings you here, and what your driving force is. Mine’s always just like, ‘I like doing impactful stuff ,’” he says. “This is not an Aaron Sorkin thing, where you can have a flashback to me and my father.”
Beckett’s affinity for impactful stuff has motivated him to manage two successful political campaigns in just over a year. The first victory was predictable. He shepherded Auckland Mayor Phil Goff to a second term with a mostly by-the-numbers campaign based around the key selling points of continuity and not being John Tamihere. The second was shocking. He helped Chlöe Swarbrick secure a narrow win in the Auckland Central electorate in this year’s general election.
Those achievements would be impressive for a grizzled political veteran. They’re particularly startling given Beckett is 25, and had never managed a campaign before Goff approached him unexpectedly in 2019. He was working the last day of a year-long stint at the Wellington-based organisation ActionStation when a message came through from someone on Goff’s team. Their first choice for campaign manager had pulled out. Beckett didn’t have a job to go to once he returned home to Auckland. He stepped off the plane and went straight to an interview. In the space of a few days, he went from being unemployed and adrift to running an incumbent mayor’s campaign.
The hire wasn’t completely out of the blue. Goff knew Beckett from his days working as the Auckland director of the climate change-focused youth organisation, Generation Zero. It had run effective grassroots movements, including one generating support for the SkyPath project and another advocating for the housing-enabling Unitary Plan. Goff says he saw the upside in hiring someone who could relate to a younger generation. “I thought it was a real advantage, actually,” he says. “I bring the grey hair and experience and he brings the youth and enthusiasm.”
But it was still a risk. Beckett was terrified. The first thing he did after getting hired was call a friend from Generation Zero to ask how to run a political campaign. There were hiccups. In his media release announcing Goff ’s campaign launch, he accidentally left the ‘r’ off the end of ‘mayor’, so the headline read “Phil Goff for Mayo”. “Personally disagree but always good to see a candidate prepared to take an unambiguous position on condiments,” wrote The Spinoff ’s Toby Manhire.
Besides that first false step, he ran a slick operation. Goff won by around 100,000 votes. Beckett turned up to dozens of community meetings, often filled with people angry about cycleways and rates. A few months later he got a call from Swarbrick asking whether he wanted to sign on to reprise the role.
The resulting campaign will go down in history. With Beckett’s support, Swarbrick clawed her way back from a 20-point polling deficit to become only the second Green MP to win an electorate. Despite that, Beckett refuses to admit he did anything special. “We won because of Chlöe, and because we managed to convert the passion and enthusiasm around her into a really strong field campaign. That’s it.”
That might be underselling it. Even if people like a candidate, converting that into one of the most effective ground operations in recent political history is no easy task. Beckett and campaign officials, including his former Generation Zero colleagues Niko Elsen and Emma McInnes, worked tirelessly to make sure every door had been knocked on and every letterbox had been stuff ed with a flyer exhorting people to deliver two ticks Green. It was an exhaustive, and exhausting, campaign.
Swarbrick always believed she would win. Optimism is one of her defining features. Her disappointment was palpable after she finished behind both Goff and National-backed candidate Victoria Crone in the Auckland mayoralty race in 2016. She looked glum in the Golden Dawn tavern afterward, ruing the fact that she’d only come third with 29,000 votes. Swarbrick adopted the same attitude in her fight for Auckland Central.
Beckett always believed she would lose. He holds out his hands at opposing ends of the table. “In terms of optimism, Chlöe was here,” he says, gesturing to his right hand. “I was here,” he says, gesturing to his left. “In the middle is something that’s somewhat reasonable.” His main ambition was not to embarrass Swarbrick with a 15-point loss. He spent the campaign’s election night party rehearsing a consoling speech in his head to deliver to their volunteers. “I was all prepared to say ‘The campaign was the achievement. The achievement was that we brought together all these young people and built this amazing thing’. That would’ve been better the closer we got,” he says. “But we won, so I didn’t have to do any of that. It speaks for itself.”
Beckett doesn’t know if he could recreate that success. He insists he’s not a guru and that if there’s a “secret sauce” to getting a politician elected, he doesn’t know its ingredients. Though he knows people will come up with theories to explain Swarbrick’s victory, he says they’re essentially junk science. “None of us know shit. We’re all just making it up.”
That’s true, but people craft narratives anyway, because they make things feel explicable. How do you explain the fact that Beckett, a man who says he doesn’t really know the secret to winning a political campaign, was able to execute a miraculous victory? Maybe he’s just someone who let his life experiences inform his decisions. He didn’t compromise on the things he believed in, or give up when the going got tough. He took the opportunities afforded him, and did his job conscientiously and professionally. Now his name is attached to some remarkable achievements. That’s one narrative. It may not be Sorkin-esque, but it’s still a good story.
Editor’s note: In the Summer 2020/21 print issue of Metro, we stated that Phil Goff won the 2019 Auckland Mayoral election by 76,000 votes; Goff won by 100,000 votes. The online version has been amended, and we apologise for the error.