Efeso Collins: The Samoan boy from Ōtara now running for mayor

Efeso Collins says Auckland needs to be a unified city where people understand each other.

This desire helped shape his decision to run for mayor of the largest city in the country, he tells Pasifika Editor Vaimoana Tapaleao. 

Of all the significant people who have influenced his life, it is the story of a stranger on a South Auckland bus that brings Fa'anana Efeso Collins to tears. 

One day, as he was getting off a bus in Ōtara, the driver stopped him, after recognising him from TV. 

"He said to me, in Samoan: "O oe o Collins?" (Are you Collins?) 

It was the driver's next actions and random act of kindness that caught him off guard that day, as well as the day Collins speaks to the Herald. 

"He stopped, turned to me and he put his hand on my head. He said: 'Go for it, son. You talk for our people.' 

"I kind of froze ... I was quite emotional. I got off the bus and I just took my time walking away. 

"He's a bus driver. Dad was a bus driver – Dad's not here to do that for me," he says, choking up, discussing the encounter that left him in tears. 

"For us, it's deeply emotional because so much of our lives has been invested in this and I don't think that we've got the benefit that should have come by now." 

Collins' father, Tauiliili Sio Collins, died in his early 60s about 14 years ago. He worked as a taxi and bus driver and was also a pastor at a Pentecostal church for a number of years. 

Today, he rests at a cemetery in Māngere. 

The cemetery was also one of the first places Collins visited after making the big decision to join the race to become Auckland's next mayor in October's election. 

Incumbent Phil Goff's decision to retire has thrown the race wide open. So far Collins, Viv Beck, Ted Johnston, Jake Law, Craig Lord and Leo Molloy have thrown their hats in the ring. 

"It was a moving time for us when we made that decision to stand for the mayoralty. We went to the grave – talked to Dad and let Dad know," Collins says. 

From the factory floors of Auckland 

Efeso Collins, 47, was raised by a man who pushed his children to get a good education and challenged them to do well in school and serve the church. 

When their father was a pastor at a church in South Auckland in their younger years, he was known for stopping the family car on the side of the road and telling his kids to get out to sing and share a testimony about their love for Jesus. 

Collins' mother, Lotomau Collins, worked on the NZ Forest Products factory floor, in Penrose, where brown paper bags were made. 

The last 20 years of her working life were spent as a cleaner at Middlemore Hospital's operating theatre. 

"You can imagine how gory it was. Mum worked until she was 70. The only reason she stopped was because she got a shoulder injury and the doctor said it was from excessive similar movements." 

His parents' story is something he refers back to regularly because he remembers the struggle they came from – even before arriving from Samoa. 

"I think that it probably explains some of the excitement in our community, that a son of Samoa is standing for the mayoralty – the highest office in this city. 

"It gives me a sense of pride. But it's a reminder, foremost, that the journey that our parents have been on – this is part of us realising the dream." 

Theirs is not unlike the stories of many other families who have built their lives in Auckland over generations. 

"It's important that [those stories] are known like that and it's told like that because we're a diverse story." 

Asked if he remembered the moment he thought about running for mayor, he said it was something that had been on his mind for a number of years. 

Collins got his first taste of local government when he was elected to and became the chair of the Otara Papatoetoe Local Board. He has gone on to serve two terms as a Manukau ward councillor for Auckland Council. 

"When I got elected to council, I knew that was an excellent position and platform too - and perhaps part of the journey might be seeking the office of the mayor." 

Before he got into politics, Collins was already a leader among his peers after being voted the first Polynesian to become Auckland University Students' Association president in the late 1990s. 

From university president to mayoral candidate 

He went on to work as a Pasefika liaison adviser at the university, working closely with low-decile schools around Auckland. 

Research at the time was showing many Pacific high schoolers were dropping out before year 12. One day, the schools asked him what they could do keep those kids at school. 

Collins came up with a simple idea to run a leadership camp dubbed "Dream Fono" that would bring students from those different schools and get them to hear from university students and successful people from within their own community. 

"One of the things I always said at Dream was: 'We're taking our uniforms off. Yeah, you might go to Massey, De La Salle or Liston, but here – first and foremost – you're Samoan, you're Tongan and you're my brother, you're my sister. 

"I was hopeful that we would reset the societal environments that we find ourselves in." 

That goal came into effect just a few weeks after one of those camps when a police officer called him about a fight that was reported between two high school groups. 

"The officer said what happened is that a few Dream boys turned up, saw each other and thought: 'This is our family.' 

"They had turned up to try and stop the fight anyway, but now they had people from the other school that they knew – and that changed the dynamic." 

That is something he would like to see more of in Auckland, Collins says. 

"I think we need a unified city first and a city that understands each other. 

"The fact that I can stand for this office shows that we've got the opportunity to push this city to ask if we can share. 

"But I want people to acknowledge that that story is part of the Auckland story – the Samoan kid who grew up in Ōtara. That story is a valid part of our history."