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Mary Polak once had a right-wing reputation, but she’s refusing to use it in the coming election

When the B.C. Liberals' vetting team sat down with prospective candidate Mary Polak nine years ago, her reputation as a social conservative led them to some pointed questions.

Ms. Polak earned the label in her high-profile battle to keep three books depicting same-sex families out of Surrey classrooms. She was chair of the Surrey School Board, having been recruited for the job by anti-abortion campaigner Heather Stilwell.

This week, Ms. Polak recalls how she assured the Liberals she didn't have any skeletons in her closet that might tumble out mid-campaign.

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"I said, 'I have never once made a homophobic comment – because it's not what I think.'" Her background check passed muster, and after one failed by-election race, Ms. Polak won three successive campaigns in Langley. In her time as an MLA, she has steered clear of topics that could reignite the three books controversy.

Ms. Polak, who has taken an increasingly prominent role in government under Premier Christy Clark, says being in politics has changed her. Sometimes, the public spotlight can be a useful tool in developing a character, and seeing the shades between black and white.

"Anybody who is in public life this long who says they haven't changed is either not very self-aware," she said, "or they are not telling the truth."

Today, Ms. Polak sounds less like the standard-bearer of the right, and more like a coalition-builder.

"We should be hard on the ideas, not on the people. I might strongly disagree with the way [NDP leader Adrian] Dix would bring about prosperity because I disagree with his methods. But you should be able to talk about ideas. And not have it become this black-and-white argument."

However a label, in politics, is not easily shed.

A single mother, Ms. Polak has a daughter who works at a food bank in Vancouver. If she wanted to build a more moderate image, she has plenty of material to work with. Family anecdotes are often served up to help shape a politician's image, which is why Ms. Clark routinely works her son Hamish into her speeches.

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Ms. Polak has resisted that temptation. She wouldn't even provide her daughter's name in an interview this week.

"Some are open and upfront about their kids and family. I don't know that I ever consciously made the decision to keep things private, it just wasn't me to put it out there," Ms. Polak said. "I'm glad I did."

If anything, she might be tempted in the coming campaign to burnish her family values credentials. For the first time, she is facing a challenger coming in from the right – B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins, who is running against her in Langley.

But she gives no sign of heading in that direction. She is almost dismissive of Mr. Cummins as a rival, saying her main focus is the B.C. New Democratic Party candidate Andrew Mercier.

Mr. Cummins doesn't expect to be in the riding much, anyway. He said this week he plans to be on the road conducting a leaders' tour. After finishing third in the Chilliwack-Hope by-election in the spring, the Conservatives' ability to mount a credible campaign has been in doubt. While the Liberals and NDP sent hundreds of volunteers out to get out their vote in that race, the Conservatives had about 30 workers, and little money to spend.

Since then, Mr. Cummins's party has being mired in internecine battles, further diluting their strength. "It's a huge challenge for us," Mr. Cummins acknowledged. "People are looking and saying, 'Who are these guys?'"

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Ms. Polak is likely calculating that she can afford not to be drawn into the corners by Mr. Cummins. But there is a broader, strategic reason for her to try to avoid being boxed in.

The Liberals still have a large gap to close if they are to overtake the NDP and hold on to power in the May election. They have to be thinking about a game plan if they are relegated to the opposition benches. Ms. Polak, running in what is one of the safer Liberal seats in the province, could play a key role in rebuilding the party if that happens.

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