The spin doctor will see you now: David Lewis, mayor maker

by Michele Hewitson / 30 November, 2016

PR man David Lewis: “I want to win, desperately. I’m pretty competitive.” Photo/Simon Young

On the night the Auckland mayoral election results came in, David Lewis, Phil Goff’s campaign manager, was at the Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen with the rest of the lefties. The bar is, he says, “aptly named for a Labour politician”. There was a party. There may have been a bit of drinking.

Of course, there was. Their man had won. There was never really any doubt that he would, but Lewis is not a man who counts his chickens before they’re hatched. Once they’re successfully hatched, though, he is not averse to “a few beers. I wasn’t driving home. Put it that way.”

When I phoned to ask for an interview, I offered congratulations. He said of the result that it “wasn’t bad”. Having met him before, I know that is the Lewis equivalent of a whoop, followed by a high five. I can’t think what it would take to cause him to do a somersault. Stating the obvious, I say he doesn’t really do ecstatic, does he? “Ah, I tend not to.” What he’s best at is “keeping calm and not panicking”. This is because he doesn’t have a heart or blood pressure. “Yeah. None of that malarkey.”

It took a fair bit of arm-twisting to get him to agree to an interview. His natural habitat, I suggest, is the shadows, lurking. He prefers this to the limelight. “I do.” I hadn’t exactly meant it as a compliment. He grins and says, “I’m an observer by nature.” He is almost impossible to offend, because he doesn’t take things personally; it is his job not to. Still, he must have some emotional investment in the outcome of his work. “I want to win, desperately. I’m pretty competitive.” Is that an emotional investment or just his competitiveness? Or are they the same thing in him? “Ha, ha. I haven’t really navel-gazed.”

No, you don’t get to be the Mayor Maker, the supremo spin doctor, by contemplating your navel. Although I’m certain he’s a pretty good judge of the psychology of others. He is also, depending on whom you speak to, the Malcolm Tucker of New Zealand politics, who has a sinister charm. He rejects, with dry delight, the accusation of charm. And: “There’ll be people on the other side of the fence who think I’m a bastard.” Or he is just a good guy who truly believes in the Labour cause, so wants the good guys to be running the country or, in this case, Auckland.

PM Helen Clark’s press secretary during “Corngate” in 2002. Photo/David White

He was Helen Clark’s guy, then Len Brown’s guy and now he is Phil’s guy. He doesn’t back losers. He jumps, although you wouldn’t get him to admit this so bluntly, before his winners become losers. He has his own PR consultancy these days – with Gordon Jon Thompson, who was also Helen’s guy – which deals in corporate relations and government relations. His work on Brown’s campaign and then Goff’s was done pro bono. The pay-off being the win, presumably.

He says he would never run a political campaign for the right, not that they would ever ask him. He does do corporate work for people who are “on the National side of things”. That sounded like a conflict – he is, as he says redundantly, known to be “a true believer” in the Labour cause. But work is work. “The stuff that I do for my clients is just paid commercial work. It’s not trying to run a political campaign, not trying to put them into public office.”

One client is his old chum the multi­millionaire businessman George Kerr. “He always said to me, ‘I’m going to get rich and you’ll always be a bloody leftie loser.’ He made a lot of money and I’m still a leftie. He hires me and calls me his little Marxist.”

Is he a Marxist? “No!”

Not judging by the colour of Goff’s billboards. I wanted to know whether it had been his idea to pinch the National Party’s blue for those signs. This led to what is a fairly typical example of how you get on when you try to get one over a top spin doctor.

“It was,” he says, “a team decision.” That they be Nat blue. “That they be Auckland blue. I think it was a little paler than the National blue.” It was a little tricky, too. “Not to trick people. Phil doesn’t hide his Labour background. He’s proud of it.”

If he is so proud of his Labour background, why weren’t the billboards Labour red? “It was saying: ‘I’m Labour, but I can work with the other side.’” So it was calculated? “Yes.” I think that’s a bit tricky. “No. He does have to work with whoever’s in government.” He doesn’t have to pinch their colour! “He pinched Auckland’s colour.”

All of which is a good demonstration of why he is a top spin doctor and why I will never be even a mediocre spin doctor.

I met him at the Goff campaign office in central Auckland, which is in the process of being packed up, so has the air of a deflated balloon after a good party. Thompson (whom Lewis calls GJ; he calls Clark Clarky; I don’t know about Browny or Goffy) was there. When I suggest we go for a drink at the nearby Mezze Bar, he says he doesn’t know the place. Thompson says, “He doesn’t know about nice things.”

That seems about right. He is an austere character, coolish, watchful – all of which you’d expect from a shadow lurker. It’s not his job to stand out. His clothes are so nondescript they defy description. He’d make a decent spy; he probably does make a decent spy. He is tight-lipped, which is also what you’d expect.

The last time I saw him, he said he didn’t know any gossip because he didn’t want to know any gossip. I suggested he must go around wearing earplugs the entire time. I believe the second part of his claim about gossip, but not the first. I say, about the Len Brown affair, that if he really hadn’t heard any gossip, people would take him for a fool. “Possibly. I’m happy for them to think I’m a fool.” You would have to be a fool to take him for one. “That’s why I’m happy for them to think that I am.” He says he doesn’t worry himself about other people’s private lives. Hmm.

Thompson suggested that Lewis’ lips start flapping after three beers. I know this is untrue, although it is true the superglue on his lips begins to dissolve a tiny bit after three beers – and after the recorder is switched off. Lewis had suggested I interview him and GJ together, and perhaps I should have, because when GJ joined us later, he told me a good story about Lewis. It is that when John Key became leader of the Opposition, “Davy came in and, for the first and only time, bought me a beer and said, ‘We’re f---ed.’”

Photo/Simon Young

Key, says Lewis, is that good, and his greatest skill is his ability to watch and learn while never appearing to watch and learn. “F----all politicians ever learn.” Key, he says, has a talent for disguising himself as an “amateur. He’s as political as Helen.” That is a dig disguised as a compliment, I’d say.

Partly, Lewis’ job is to tell politicians things they may not want to hear; and mostly people tell politicians only things they do want to hear. He is the “no” man in a den of “yes” men. His job is telling the truth to politicians, then. “It is telling the truth.” To politicians. “Ha, ha. Telling the truth. You’re trying to be naughty again, aren’t you?” Yes, but I don’t know why I bothered. He has spent much of his career dealing with the press gallery pack, and was a journalist himself, so I’m but a sandfly sans bite.

He – and two others, whose names he wouldn’t tell me unless I turned off the recorder – had the job of telling Brown he was stuffed after all that yucky sex business and could not possibly win again. That wasn’t a pleasant thing to have to do – and he says he liked and still likes Brown. “It was tough for Len to hear what we had to say, but he needed to know that he wasn’t going to have a chance.”

And if Brown had decided to run again? “I would have said, ‘Mate, good luck. I won’t be able to run your campaign or be on your campaign, because I don’t think you’re going to win.’” I’m fairly certain – I got one of his spinny answers – that if Brown had stood again, Lewis would have run Goff’s campaign against him.

He is tough. He says, about what he admits was a “slightly brutal” meeting with Brown, that “it was a logical exercise. It was a pragmatic exercise, I thought.”

Lewis used to be bluer than Goff’s billboards. He’s a private-school boy – Wanganui Collegiate, his family’s “turangawaewae” – who was raised in a Tory family. His father was a navy man, who rose to become Deputy Chief of Staff; his mother is from a large Hawke’s Bay farming family. His parents are still true blue. I wondered whether they mind that he grew up to become a little Marxist. “I suspect they’d be happier if I was working for the blue side of politics.”

There has been, he says, the odd barney over politics over the years, but “we do talk about politics and we disagree – so we don’t talk too much about politics”. He is supposed to be the great persuader and yet he still hasn’t managed to persuade his parents of the error of their political ways. “You should meet my father! He’s conservative.” And a rigid navy chap, presumably. “Well, in his political views. But then so am I. So I can’t hold that against him. He’s a good bloke.”

He enjoyed being a boarder at Collegiate, which was then an all-boys school. You imagine the discipline and a certain austerity would have suited him. He didn’t get terribly homesick and got on well with the other boys. “I had conditioned myself to the fact that I was going there. My brother’s three years older … so I knew I was going there.” He was caned a few times – “for smoking, that sort of thing”.

At university, where he was supposed to be studying to be a lawyer – which seemed “a good lark” until he decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer – he was “still a little Tory bastard”. Then he decided he wanted to be a rugby journalist, until he became one and decided he didn’t “want to spend the rest of my life talking to rugby players”.

He went to England on his big OE, encountered Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and came back “a screaming bloody leftie”. He joined MP Annette King’s office and then Clark’s, as a junior press secretary, when Labour was in opposition, and eventually became her chief press secretary – so he must have been an extremely good shadow lurker.

This career path is what journalists call crossing over into the dark arts and we pretend not to see the attraction. But you can, of course, see the attraction of being close to power and of helping politicians into positions of power. “You did want to be close to the centre. When you’re around a senior politician like Helen, you’re around where the news is being made.” It might also be nice for one’s ego. “It’s probably good for the ego.” It is a reflected importance. “There’s a little bit of that,” he says.

Making sure there is only a little bit of that is the trick. The only time a senior press secretary should be in the news is when he or she takes the bullet. His bullet was the infamous car-speeding episode in which the PM’s car broke the speed limit getting from Waimate to Christchurch Airport so they could make a plane to get to a rugby game. That was his fault. He was the one who wanted to get to the game. Why, the PM probably wouldn’t have even noticed how fast they were going. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Sticking to it is the other great trick in the spin doc’s repertoire. He learnt from Clark and her chief of staff, Heather Simpson.

“A lot of it is making sure you’re keeping things simple and not overcomplicating things. You learn discipline and staying on message.”

I got him that third beer. I contemplated having another go at those Nat-blue billboards, but as he has learnt well from those past mistresses of staying on message, I didn’t bother. Only a fool would have.

This article was first published in the November 6, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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