“Could a city, as a city, develop a culture that proactively identified, invested in and produced leaders?”
Written in May 2012, before Bristol had decided it wanted a mayor and before Marvin Rees had thrown his hat into the ring to run for the post for the first time, this is a telling question from a Bristolian with nothing short of an obsession for leadership.
Born and bred in inner-city Bristol, our new mayor’s career has been littered with projects, roles and programmes all based around crafting leaders in one way or another.
From his City Leadership Programme identifying disadvantaged kids and giving them a platform, to being a Yale World Fellow following a “four-month immersive transformational journey”, to his latest job as mayor of Bristol, Rees’ ambitions have always been clear.
It all started for 43-year-old Rees, elected mayor at his second attempt on Saturday, in St Paul’s where he lived with his single mother (his mother was British and his father a Jamaican who arrived in the UK at the age of 12) in what he describes as “the only place we could afford to live”.
In a biography published in 2007 for Operation Black Vote, he said: “I didn’t really enjoy growing up there. There was racial tension, being mixed race and from a poor family it was quite tough.”
Rees grew up with seven brothers and sisters, and his family circumstances meant his next move was with his mother to a refuge in Exmouth.
Having lived for a short time in Lawrence Weston, he moved to Easton at the age of six and remains there today, living with his wife Kirsten, a pilates instructor, and their three children, Caleb, seven, Levi, five, and Eden, ten months, who were all at the mayor election count on Saturday afternoon.
He spent his school days at Avon Primary School in Shirehampton, a place he would return earlier this year to launch his mayoral campaign.
After secondary school at what is now City Academy, Rees had ambitions on joining the Royal Marines and would train in Easton parks after watching Newsnight to get in shape.
When the big day came, however, he was hit with rejection due to an eye condition which barred him from signing up.
Always showing a keen interested in politics, Rees went to Swansea University instead and eventually found his way to a masters in political theory.
Aside from politics, Christianity has been a running theme in Rees’ life. His first job was working as a youth coordinator with Tearfund, a Christian anti-poverty charity, where he spent two years.
He then spent a year on Sojourners, a Christian social justice magazine and organisation which is based out of Washington DC.
While in America he completed a masters degree in global economic development at Eastern University, a Christian university in Pennsylvania where he studied courses including Biblical Economics according to his LinkedIn page.
He then returned to the UK and broke away to forge a short career as a broadcast journalist, working at BBC Bristol, BBC Radio Five and Radio Four among others.
During this time he began to work with Operation Black Vote, a racial justice campaign group and national program designed to support people from black minority ethnic backgrounds as they try to move into public leadership.
Moving away from journalism and with his sights set back on politics, he gained a place on the Yale World Fellow Programme, a yearly project to take 16 people from diverse backgrounds around the world to “to cultivate and empower a network of globally engaged leaders committed to making the world a better place”.
During the fellowship, Rees worked with Bill Clinton’s spiritual advisor, the pastor and campaigner Tony Campolo. Campolo, referred to as a member of the Evangelical Left was staunchly anti-abortion and anti-same sex marriage. He later caused controversy in Christian evangelical circles by reversing his position on gay marriage.
During the 2016 election campaign, Rees said he supports gay marriage during a row about homophobia. But in a tweet that was later deleted, Rees wrote: “Q: Is it homophobic to disagree with the concept of gay marriage? A: No. For the record, I support equal marriage.”
Rees returned again to the UK in 2011 where his talent and potential had not gone unnoticed and he joined the Labour Party’s Future Candidates Programme which was set up to provide a “more representative pool of talent” for local parties when they select candidates for parliamentary and local elections.
The programme lasted a year and would have groomed Rees to be the perfect candidate for the next available parliamentary seat. But the completion of the programme also segued nicely into Bristol voting, via a referendum, in favour of adopting an elected mayor to run the city.
But despite being a clear favourite and having the full backing of the national party in the form of visits from the top brass, including Ed Miliband, Rees finished a disappointing second to George Ferguson who took victory and served as mayor for the next three-and-a-half years.
During this time Rees returned to a job he had started with the NHS, before he left for America for the second time, as a programme manager for delivering race equality in mental healthcare.
He also carried out a role in the local NHS which included working in public health, a department taken under local authority control and thus restricting Rees politically.
That was until he was selected (albeit narrowly against Bedminster councillor Mark Bradshaw) again to run for Bristol mayor, to take another shot at beating Ferguson to the top job as leader of Bristol.
As the election got in full swing, the public were offered a glimpse into Rees’ private life through interviews and campaign literature which was delivered through the doors by a small army of party members.
On Labour pamphlets and in local newspapers and websites, Rees’ background and difficult early years were repeated.
On the final day before the polls opened, leaflets fell on doormats with a message from Rees himself saying that “growing up as the mixed race child of a single mother formed the foundations” of his beliefs. He told Bristol24/7 in an interview that he was “ferociously inspirational”.
His interest in boxing was also highlighted, offering an explanation as to why he was fighting back to win the election he lost in 2012.
The only things that seemed to trip him up during the campaign were his cautious approaches to the Jeremy Corbyn question and his backfiring policy to ban all strip clubs in Bristol allegedly without consulting any of the women employed there.
His religion was also questioned when Ferguson boycotted a debate hosted by an evangelical church which he linked to alleged homophobic comments in the past.
Asked if his religion influenced his politics, Rees told Bristol24/7: “Did Martin Luther King’s religion influence his politics? Of course, of course. There’s a great line by Obama: ‘who would king be without his faith’.”
Minor hiccups aside, Rees ran a smooth and ultimately victorious campaign which succeeded in mobilising the previously dormant traditional Labour wards.
With the turnout more than doubled from 2012, the path was clear for a leader who had perhaps always been in waiting.
Main photograph by Zac Crawley at Candour Creative
Read more: A letter to the new mayor.