Despite a smear campaign attacking her professional background, Labour’s Manukau East candidate Jenny Salesa says she is excited by the prospect of being Parliament’s first Tongan-speaking MP.
She has been running her campaign from a sparse fale situated behind the incumbent Labour MP Ross Robertson’s electorate office in Otara for what she concedes is a “very strong Labour seat”.
Two-thirds of voters in the electorate gave Labour their party vote last election and Mr Robertson held the seat since it was formed in 1996.
However, Mrs Salesa said she was not taking anything for granted.
Wearing a red flower in her hair and a long Pasifika-inspired red dress, she orchestrates her campaign while sitting over a computer beside a small oil heater in the corner of the fale.
The 46-year-old former policy analyst is married to the University of Auckland’s head of Pacific Studies and together they have two daughters aged under 10.
Although they don’t yet live in the electorate, Mrs Salesa said they had been looking around Otahuhu.
They were living in the United States for almost 10 years before leaving in 2011 to “come back and contribute, give back to New Zealand”.
She said her motivation for standing came from the disappointment of seeing poor outcomes for Maori and Pasifika people.
“When we left New Zealand, you saw the stats, you saw the educational statistics, you saw unemployment rates and I was hopeful that when we came back things would be better … they’re actually worse.”
During her time in America, Mrs Salesa said she volunteered for President Barack Obama’s election campaign, which taught her how to recruit volunteers and keep them interested.
“I’ve recruited volunteers from everywhere basically – from our Labour membership … I’ve recruited a lot of volunteers through churches, but I’d say by far my strongest supporters are actually my relatives … They’re the ones that turn up every week.”
Raising voter turnout, which at the last election was a mere 68 per cent in Manukau East, was one of her biggest goals, she said.
The majority of the Tongan community had been supportive of her campaign, however “there are some detractors as there would be in any ethnic group”, she said.
An email alleging Mrs Salesa had lied on her CV no less than nine times was sent to media outlets near the beginning of her campaign.
Mrs Salesa said she didn’t know the person behind the emails “but it’s very clear to me that it’s a person who wants me not to stand as a candidate here anymore”.
The email’s key claim was that without a practicing certificate, Mrs Salesa wasn’t entitled to call herself a lawyer.
Mrs Salesa said she studied as a lawyer and was admitted to the bar, however on advice from the Law Society she has since amended her CV. The rest of the allegations were baseless, she said.
The author of the email, Lata Maumau said he had no “ill motivations” and previously was a supporter of Mrs Salesa, but sent the email out of the belief he was helping inform others from the Tongan community who had donated to her campaign.