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University of Fraser Valley prof leaving academia to join B.C. Liberals

Darryl Plecas is hoping to become the B.C. Liberal candidate in Abbotsford South.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

After 33 years in the classroom, criminologist Darryl Plecas of the University of the Fraser Valley is walking away from the blackboard to enter politics in hopes of becoming the B.C. Liberal candidate in Abbotsford South.

Prof. Plecas concedes he hasn't picked the easiest political option. In 2009, former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen won the newly formed riding by 60 per cent over his NDP rival, who earned 25 per cent. Now, however, the centre-right vote is likely to be divided among the Liberals, B.C. Conservatives and Mr. van Dongen, who plans to run as an independent.

"It's interesting the BC Liberals are prepared to split the free-enterprise vote in the riding even though they have said that is a bad thing to do," Mr. van Dongen said Monday, noting he will be running to defend his record of public service over the 17 years he has been an MLA.

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Beyond the prospect of a vote split, Prof. Plecas is, like other Liberals, facing the newly energized opposition New Democrats, who are running far ahead of the Liberals in the polls. But, in an interview on Monday, Prof. Plecas was audilbly energized, and said he relishes the challenge.

"I don't think I'd be a good elected official to jump on board a bandwagon that's winning," he said. "I am there because I believe in the Liberals. I don't see them as a sinking ship. [They're] going through troubled waters."

No date has yet been set for a nomination meeting. There are no other declared candidates.

Prof. Plecas says he told Premier Christy Clark he was interested in running. He says Rich Coleman, the Energy Minister and Fort Langley-Aldergrove MLA, was encouraging. But one of the key factors pushing him along was fretting about economic challenges facing the world in general and B.C. in particular. It's a point he mentions several times, suggesting the Liberals have managed the economy well.

But there was another reason for his decision – one that has likely prompted other academics to enter politics.

"For 35 years as a criminologist, I have been painfully aware that all roads lead to government. That's where decisions are made. That's where action happens," said Prof. Plecas, who has never previously sought elected office, but has served in such high-profile roles as being on the selection advisory committee for the appointment of the Chief Justice of the Provincial Court of B.C. "I want to get into the action."

While proud of an academic career that sees him currently holding the RCMP University Research Chair and serving as the director of the Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research, Prof. Plecas also spoke as if he couldn't believe it had taken him this long to enter politics. "It's time to stand up and speak out," he said.

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The professor said he has been supportive of B.C. Liberal justice policy. He says he has ideas on the file in such areas as restorative justice, but also has ideas on other issues such as health care. "I do read The Economist. I am in touch with other issues," he said.

Yet asked if he has political retail skills, he admitted "I absolutely don't." He added: "I don't see myself that way. I would be asking people to think about what I said and make a decision they feel comfortable with."

There are many academics-turned-politicians to encourage Prof. Plecas, such as Pierre Trudeau and Jack Layton. Closer to home, Simon Fraser University professor Kennedy Stewart was elected an MP in the 2011 election. Prof. Plecas mentions George Abbott, the veteran B.C. Liberal cabinet minister who was a political science instructor at Okanagan University College before entering politics.

Yet there are others to give him pause, such as Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Both were elected in their ridings, but took the federal Liberals to defeat.

Prof. Plecas says he's not a typical academic, noting he has been more hands-on than most. "Most people who know me would say I am a completely down-to-earth guy – more so than most academics."

Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, was defeated in a 2008 bid for a federal seat in Vancouver. He said academics often try to energize students on the issues, and the effort can have an effect on the teachers themselves, leading them to take the political plunge. Academics, he said, also are adept at communication, given they work daily off varied scripts.

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"I don't know [Prof. Plecas]," Prof. Byers said, "but I feel a certain affinity."

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