The race for East Coast electorate Ikaroa-Rāwhiti has been flung wide open, after Meka Whaitiri's shock defection to Te Pāti Māori.
Whaitiri (Ngā iwi o te Tai Rāwhiti, Ngāti Kahungunu) has held the seat for the last decade but may have scuppered her chances of another term by switching tickets at the last minute.
She was up against Labour's new candidate Cushla Tangaere-Manuel (Ngāti Porou), who came from a rugby governance and media background and was not on Labour's list.
Both women met at Ōrongomai Marae in Upper Hutt for a candidates debate facilitated by the PSA union and political commentator and former Labour staffer Shane Te Pou.
There were so many laughs amongst the crowd of 30, you could almost forget the dramatic backdrop to this electorate contest.
Whaitiri, a former Cabinet minister, blindsided her boss and left her former Labour colleagues shellshocked in May after her surprise defection.
She was now pushing what she described as an "unapologetically Māori" approach on a Te Pāti Māori ticket.
"The role that Te Pāti Māori plays is that we can be the thorn in the government's side," she told those at the debate, "no different to the Green Party whose job it is to hold the Labour government to account to do more in the climate action space".
Tangaere-Manuel was not super clear on all of Labour's policies, but did promise attendees she wouldd be an honest East Coast voice in the capital.
"I may not have all the answers but I'm here to listen."
Whoever won the race would need to do a lot of listening; Ikaora-Rāwhiti was a huge electorate, stretching from the top of the East Cape down to Wellington. The area included more than two dozen iwi or hapū, many of which were still in the throes of navigating both a cost-of-living crisis and cyclone recovery.
Whaitiri told RNZ her decade of experience, and the fact she was now part of a more left-leaning minor party, meant she was still the best candidate for the job.
"When I decided to cross I knew it wasn't going to be well-received. It wasn't an easy decision, but it was one that I needed to make for my sanity, my mental health.
"I'll go to the polls with the choice in front of the voters - whether they still have confidence in me or if what I've done has damaged the electorate."
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On her ability to work with Labour given the history, Whairiti said her approach to politics had always been putting "kaupapa ahead of personalities".
"It's the cause that drives you to be in places of leadership. I mightn't like you, but if you've got the right cause and our causes align, we're just got to get on with it."
Tangaere-Manuel said there were advantages to running on a major party ticket, including being more likely to be a voice at - not adjacent to - the table.
"Naturally, whānau get tempted to vote otherwise when people, not so much parties or movements, but people come up that they like or trust.
"One of the things Parekura [Horomia] used to say to us is you have to be at that table. You have to be at the negotiating table, at the table of power, and that's another reason I'm standing for Labour."
The late Parekura Horomia was Ikaroa-Rāwhiti's MP at the time of his death in 2013 that sparked a by-election Whaitiri went on to win.
The Māori electorate has been a safe Labour seat since its establishment in 1999, but Māori Party candidates have come second in the last two elections.
Labour clearly still saw it as its turf - with Willie Jackson going as far as saying he hoped voters "punish" Whairiti at the polls for her defection.
If Whairiti did retain the seat, she would make history - becoming the electorate's first non-Labour MP.
Support for Tangaere-Manuel
Those living around East Cape told RNZ roading, the cost of living, travel to Gisborne, dental care, fruit prices and the health of the ocean were important issues to them.
Most supported Tangaere-Manuel's bid for the seat, with several questioning Whaitiri's jump to Te Pāti Māori and how much she had achieved for the region.
"Push for Cush," one voter said. "She's from here, we know her, she's awesome. New blood, new voice, 100 percent East Coast."
Another voter expressed contempt Whaitiri had left Labour: "Us fellas get a bit pissed off with members jumping ship. It's an insult to us, really."
This voter said he had been reading up on Tangaere-Manuel in the news and believed she would bring something fresh for the region.
"My thoughts about Meka are, what did she do?" he said.
"There's no one as good as Parekura Horomia. I feel somebody else could have done better than Meka after Parekura. I worked in my cousin's forestry gang, and Parekura did a lot of good for Māori enterprises in Tairāwhiti.
"I don't know where the people sit with Meka because they put her in and I don't know if she could shift all of those people with her to the Māori Party. So good on Cushla, I say. Somebody had to stand in her place.'
Another voter said she would be voting for Tangaere-Manuel, who she described as a people person but not a pushover.
"She handles challenges and she listens to the people. She goes out into the community and not only that she can handle, say for example, being in Parliament and debating with the MPs.
"So I have a lot of faith in her. She listens to people and if she thinks that we're a bit too unrealistic she'd tell us straight up. No mucking around with our Cush, plus she can sing."