Hecklers are going from meeting to meeting in Wellington and abusing candidates for their positions on Three Waters reform.
At the Brooklyn debate on Tuesday night several audience members left early because of a group of hecklers, who had also attended events in Newtown and Khandallah.
"I'm surprised at the sinister turn it's taken," said mayoral candidate Paul Eagle. He normally looked forward to debates and meetings but was now having to gear himself up to attend.
He said the disruption was a shame because these were the best-attended candidate meetings Eagle had seen. He said the meetings needed help from the council in terms of moderation, to stop hecklers hijacking the meeting.
The heckling was mainly about Three Waters and co-governance, but came up with other issues too. "I always try to explain co-governance at these meetings because most of the crowd simply don't understand it," said Eagle.
Eagle and fellow mayoral contender Tory Whanau, both of whom are Māori and who support Three Waters reform, were on the receiving end of the heckling. They both believe the hecklers are coordinated and are trying to disrupt meetings.
"I hope it's not racially charged, I believe that this city is liberal and inclusive and voters want to see diversity," Eagle said.
Whanau said the hecklers were tough to deal with because they went beyond what was expected at a candidate debate. "It's not in good faith. It's intimidating," she said.
She agreed with Eagle that support was needed from the council, because residents' associations were not equipped to deal with abuse.
"I can handle that sort of behaviour, but it shouldn't be tolerated. I have concerns that it'll discourage people, especially wāhine Māori, from standing in the future."
Paekawakawa/Southern ward candidate and councillor Laurie Foon said that she and her husband struggled to sleep after the Newtown Residents' Association meeting because of the behaviour from hecklers.
Foon has started to make sure her supporters stay nearby at the events and don't leave before her. At the Brooklyn meeting she left early through a back door to avoid a run-in with a heckler from the Newtown meeting.
Some comments towards Whanau were "pretty ugly", she said. She was worried the abuse would put off potential candidates. "I would not be considering running if I was a new candidate. How can we expect good people to put their hands up?"
Fellow Southern ward candidate Nureddin Abdurahman said the hecklers were particularly targeting women and anyone affiliated with a political party. He found it frustrating that the hecklers would cut him off before he could answer, especially on questions about climate change and transport.
"We will always have differences but we need to be respectful. They don't let you say a single thing."
As a first-time candidate he was finding the meetings "toxic", he said. "It's getting nasty and they're fighting with other residents at the meetings too."
Fleur Fitzsimons, who retired from council on Thursday, has been supporting Abdurahman's campaign and attended a few of the meetings.
She said the criticism was "a lot harsher" than at the 2019 election. The Brooklyn meeting normally had a "light-hearted side to it", where the moderator asked for interesting facts about the candidates, but that was gone.
"I think it's dangerous for democracy. It seemed like a hangover of the protest at Parliament. And it's not reflected in interactions we have with residents on the campaign trail. It's not representative of that."
Brooklyn resident Nick Mouat attended the Brooklyn meeting and saw many attendees leave the meeting early because of the hecklers.
"The thing that disappointed me, is that it was so nasty people in the crowd were saying 'I'm so glad I didn't bring my kids'," he said. "If I was considering standing I'd think 'no' because of that meeting."
* This story originally appeared on Stuff.