Jacinda Ardern, the small-town bright spark who won over New Zealand and the world, is coming up for re-election.
It wasn't so long ago that Jacinda Ardern was behind the counter at the 'Golden Kiwi', taking orders at the nautical-themed takeaway joint. Now, the 40-year-old New Zealand Prime Minister is one of the world's most recognizable leaders.
Throughout her three-year term, she's attracted headlines -- for being an unusually young Prime Minister, for giving birth while leading a country, for her empathetic handling of the Christchurch mosque attacks, and lately, for her swift, effective action against the coronavirus pandemic.
That's given her an outsized profile for the leader of a country of 5 million people. She's graced the covers of Vogue and Time magazine and hosted American TV personality Stephen Colbert at her suburban Auckland home.
Last year, she topped a survey of most trustworthy politicians -- in Australia. And, as she heads into this year's New Zealand's election on October 17, polls put her as one of the country's most popular leaders ever.
The big question isn't whether she will win a second term for her party, which now seems all but certain, but if her party will make New Zealand history by becoming the first to secure a majority under the current political system.
But Ardern is not without her detractors. Her critics say she has done little in her first term to deliver the transformational government she promised three years ago.
And some of her opponents are here in Morrinsville, where she grew up.
A prophetic yearbook in Morrinsville High.
Morrinsville is better known for producing milk than Prime Ministers. Driving into town, lush green paddocks dotted with dairy cows slowly give way to one-story weatherboard houses behind short wooden fences, which in turn become farming supply stores and tractor outlets.
On the main street, colorful cow sculptures grace the sidewalk -- a cow outside a pharmacy has a medicine bottle painted on its side, while another outside the veterans' association has a gun attached to its back.
A shiny Holstein Friesian -- or "Morrinsville Mega Cow" as it's known -- looms over the main stretch, as tall as a two-story building.
Many of the town's 8,000 locals are dairy farmers, contributing to one of the country's biggest export industries. Historically, farmers tend to vote for the pro-business National Party and Morrinsville is no exception.
It was in this National Party stronghold that Ardern -- who has gone on to become a darling of progressives around the world -- had her formative years.
Born in 1980 to Mormon parents, Ardern spent the first years of her life in Murupara, a small, economically depressed forestry town in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty. Ardern said in her maiden speech to parliament that her passion for social justice was sparked by what she saw in Murupara.
Unemployment was widespread and some turned to suicide. The girl who babysat her and her sister "turned yellow from hepatitis," a virus more common in developing countries.
In the 1980s, Ardern's family moved 160 kilometers away to Morrinsville, where her grandfathers had dug drains and farmed.
Ardern's father worked as the town's police officer and her mother as a cook at the local school.
As a 14-year-old, Ardern landed after-school shifts at the 'Golden Kiwi' fish and chip shop. 'She was always a very good talker,' said Morrinsville farmer John Walsh, as he waited one chilly Friday night for takeaways outside the shop, where he used to be served by the young Ardern.
It was her aptitude for speaking that scored Ardern her first political victory as a schoolgirl in the 1990s.
Ardern was the student representative for the board of trustees at Morrinsville College, a small high school with colorful murals and a large grassy field dedicated to rugby, New Zealand's national sport.
In that role, she managed to convince the board to change the uniform rules so that girls could wear shorts -- "ghastly corduroy trousers," as Ardern's former social studies teacher Gregor Fountain remembers them -- not just skirts.
"My recollection is that we were ahead of our times," said John Inger, who became principal of Morrinsville College while Ardern was at school, and who is still the principal more than two decades later.
"No doubt in a very conservative rural community like ours that would have raised a few eyebrows."
Inger remembers the teenage Ardern as intelligent, articulate, cheerful, and persuasive, with a strong sense of social justice.
She was a keen debater, a frequent speech competition winner, and a member of the school's Amnesty International group, which advocated for human rights. When pushed on whether there was anything she was bad at, Inger reluctantly points to her lack of sporting ability, but even then, she gave it a go, he says.
Unlike many of her peers, she didn't drink, Inger says. She was well respected and "walked around with a big smile on her face all the time," he says. "She had no enemies that I'm aware of."
Fountain agrees: "At school, she was popular but not like the totally cool kid. There were cooler, trendier people."
When Ardern left high school, she graduated with the second-highest grades in her year.
The real tell for what was to come was in her high school yearbook (see photo below!0, where classmates voted on each others' likely futures.
In the Morrinsville College 1998 yearbook, there's a prophetic phrase written in Comic Sans: "Most likely to become Prime Minister ... Jacinda Ardern."
It was in Wellington that Ardern, after graduating from Waikato University with a degree in communication studies, began working in the office of Labour leader Helen Clark, the country's first-elected female Prime Minister.
Next, Ardern went to London, a well-trodden path for university-educated New Zealanders in their 20s, where she worked for the United Kingdom's Government Cabinet Office.
Fountain, who became Ardern's friend after she left school, remembers meeting up with her while he was over there for a school trip.
She took him to a spot where former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill watched films during World War II. "It was this lovely moment of student-turned-teacher," he says.
But there was no hometown advantage. Waikato is so blue, the colour of the NZ National Party, that it hasn't elected a Labour Party representative in nearly 100 years.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Ardern didn't win.
But thanks to New Zealand's electoral system, which allocates 49 of its 120 seats based on the proportion of party vote, she got into parliament anyway, becoming the youngest sitting member.
The following election, in 2011, she stood in Auckland Central against the National Party's Nikki Kaye in a face-off that was chauvinistically termed the "battle of the babes."
Both were young, ambitious women who appealed to youth voters.
But Ardern lost by 700 votes -- or two percentage points.
Once again, she got into parliament anyway.
Although she wasn't the elected lawmaker for Auckland Central, she became a well-known figure in the city. And not just for politics, outside of Parliament, she dabbled in DJ-ing, including at a major summer festival on Auckland's waterfront alongside alternative music favorites.
Finally, in February 2017, she won a safe Labour seat, a seat once held by former Prime Minister Clark, in a byelection triggered by the resignation of Clark's successor.
An unprecedented election
Two months before the September 2017 national election, New Zealand's Labour Party was in the doldrums.
A slew of middle-aged male leaders (four in less than a decade) had failed to ignite enthusiasm in voters, and the party was heading toward its fourth crushing election defeat in a row.
Then, in a surprise move, then-Labour Party leader Andrew Little stood down after polls made it clear there was no way he could win.
After years of telling media that she didn't want to be Prime Minister, Ardern was appointed in his place.
Weeks before the election, excitement grew among left-leaning voters who felt re-energized by Ardern's upbeat, fresh approach.
Papers covered Ardern in glowing terms and, within three weeks of taking over, Labour's polling had soared by 15 percentage points.
Local media coined a new term: "Jacindamania."
And when the election was held in September 2017, her party took home 37% of the vote -- well up on the 25% it had received the election before, but still less than National's 44%.
As neither major party had the 50% of votes needed to lead the country, both had to pair with minor parties.
For a month, there was no victor.
Then Winston Peters, the charismatic leader of the conservative New Zealand First Party, announced he would partner with Labour and the liberal Green Party.
Bingo ! Jacinda NZ PM at 37 !
Ardern found out alongside everyone else: She was going to be Prime Minister
She was New Zealand's youngest leader in more than 150 years, and one of the youngest heads of state anywhere in the world.
And the rest is history - in the making!