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Patti MacAhonic, right, Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce executive director, who is running for nomination for the NDP candidacy of Chilliwack, meets with NDP supporters as they view the location for the nomination meeting at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre in Chilliwack in Chilliwack, B.C., Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A Chamber of Commerce executive who wants to run for the New Democrats in the B.C. election next May has been told she will lose her job if she wins the party nomination in the riding of Chilliwack.

The B.C. NDP has never won this Fraser Valley riding, but Patti MacAhonic, the Chilliwack chamber's executive director, said the nomination is a prize worth risking her paycheque for.

If she wins the NDP nomination battle on Jan. 19, Ms. MacAhonic will face off against B.C. Liberal candidate John Martin, who placed third in a by-election in the neighbouring riding of Chilliwack-Hope last spring for the B.C. Conservatives.

"I've lived here for 22 years, and I can see people are ready for a change," Ms. MacAhonic said. "People have lost confidence in this government."

In the past, the NDP would have treated ridings such as Chilliwack as unfriendly territory, and concentrated its resources and talent elsewhere. But Gwen O'Mahony's breakthrough for the NDP last April in Chilliwack-Hope has helped change the party's attitude about its chances in the Fraser Valley.

Mr. Martin, a criminology professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the history of voting in Chilliwack is on his side, but added the NDP's strong lead in the polls across the province means his victory is no sure bet. "This has always been a bedrock riding for the free-enterprise coalition, regardless of what it is called," he said Tuesday. "But there are no safe seats in this province. The NDP is the challenge and we expect a tough campaign whoever their candidate is."

Ms. MacAhonic has been granted a leave of absence from her job as she prepares for the nomination fight against Dennis Adamson, the Fraser Valley's electoral area director for the community of Yale. But the board of directors from the Chilliwack chamber has rejected her request that she would extend her leave until the election in May, if she wins the nomination.

"It is in the best interest of the membership of the Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce for Ms. MacAhonic to step aside from her role to avoid any possible or perceived conflict of interest or breach of Chamber Policy," stated in a news release this week issued by the chamber president, Kevin Gemmell. Mr. Gemmell would not comment on Tuesday, but pointed to the news release that states if she is nominated as the NDP candidate, they will ask for her resignation.

Ms. MacAhonic said she was surprised by the decision, noting that other chambers of commerce have allowed staff to seek political office without losing their jobs.

The province's chambers of commerce are hardly hotbeds for NDP activism, but Ms. MacAhonic said there is no political uniformity within the small-business community she represents.

"Over the last 14 months of being executive director of a Chamber, I have seen how there is no need for polarization."

An MBA with a long background in executive management, Ms. MacAhonic was widowed when she was 29 and has been active in promoting the rights of injured workers after her first husband was killed in an industrial accident. She moved to Chilliwack to raise her four children, and has been executive director of the chamber for a little more than a year.

Mr. Martin ran for the B.C. Conservatives in last spring's by-election in Chilliwack-Hope. He switched his party allegiance in the fall in a high-profile defection that helped define the sinking fortunes of the B.C. Conservatives. "People made clear in the by-election that they were not going to a third party," Mr. Martin said.

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