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Hampton steps aside as Ontario NDP leader

His exit triggers wide-open race

June 14, 2008

Rob Ferguson

Robert Benzie

Queen's Park Bureau

Howard Hampton will retire as Ontario NDP leader next March after 13 tumultuous years and three elections at the helm.

His announcement – to be made today at a New Democrat provincial council meeting – triggers a wide-open race for leader of the 10-member caucus at Queen's Park, where potential candidates have been jockeying for months.

One party insider said there are four main leadership contenders in the caucus – Beaches-East York MPP Michael Prue, Cheri DiNovo of Parkdale-High Park, Toronto-Danforth MPP Peter Tabuns and Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath.

Hampton, 56, told the Star last night he reached the decision to step down as leader "earlier this year" but waited until now to make his plans known. "You have to ask yourself, as you do after every election, do you have the energy to do four more years and do another election campaign?"

For the father of two school-age children and MPP for Kenora-Rainy River since 1987, the answer was a clear "no." But Hampton says he will remain as an MPP.

The years since he took the party's helm in 1996 after the defeat of former premier Bob Rae's government a year earlier have been challenging for the NDP, which has remained a distant third.

Despite Rae's defection to the federal Liberals, New Democrats have been unable to shake the stigma created by his 1990-95 term during a lingering recession in which the NDP faced a province deep in debt and forced government workers to take unpaid days off – the so-called "Rae days."

Political observers have been wondering how much longer Hampton would stay as leader after his wife, veteran Sudbury-area MPP Shelley Martel, announced a year ago she would not run in last October's provincial election.

"She's overjoyed," a buoyant-sounding Hampton said last night, chuckling.

"She thinks this is the best idea I've had in a long time."

He and Martel, who have a son, Jonathan, and a daughter Sarah, met at Queen's Park and served in Rae's cabinet together.

As for possible successors, the NDP insider said: "Tabuns has been organizing behind the scenes for some time.

"It would take some arm twisting to get Horwath to run – she has a young family – but I think she could potentially do well. And having a young woman run would be good for the party."

Toronto Mayor David Miller, who has a couple of years left in his term and has let his NDP membership lapse, is "out," the insider added.

Last fall's election campaign was physically and mentally gruelling for Hampton, who couldn't shake a cold in the first few weeks.

He got a burst of energy in mid-campaign amid hopes the NDP could hold the balance of power in a minority government, but that prospect evaporated as voters flocked to the Liberals over widespread concerns about Progressive Conservative plans to fund religious schools.

At one campaign stop, he accused the media of not caring about "real issues" like child poverty and elderly nursing-home residents soaking in wet diapers. More strain showed as he told the Toronto Sun's editorial board he could have walked naked down Yonge St. without getting any attention.

Hampton acknowledged the campaign result was difficult to swallow because the NDP came within a few hundred votes of doubling its seat total in the Legislature.

"To come so close in 10 or 12 ridings and not win them, it's a bit frustrating," he said last night.

While he is tired of being boss, he is not tired of being an MPP despite the fact he is trained as a lawyer and a teacher and could go back to either field.

"I can commit mayhem on many fronts," Hampton joked, adding, "My intention is to run again."

Hampton's decision comes as the Legislature – where he is widely regarded as one of the most effective critics of the government – prepares to break for its summer recess next week.

"He is a brilliant performer in question period," said veteran New Democrat MPP and house leader Peter Kormos (Welland).

"He brings a lawyer's cross-examination skills to bear ... he quite frankly revived the party and the caucus after the debacle of Bob Rae."

Premier Dalton McGuinty declined to comment on Hampton's departure until it was made official today. Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory was returning from a business trip to Ireland and could not be reached.

McGuinty and Hampton attended the University of Ottawa law school at the same time, but the two men personally dislike each other.

When the pair flew to New York with then premier Mike Harris in September 2001 to visit Ground Zero, fellow travellers on the plane said there was palpable contempt between them.

Hampton, who played NCAA hockey for the Dartmouth Indians, an Ivy League powerhouse, remains an avid hockey player and is a lifelong fan of the Montreal Canadiens.

He said one of the secrets to keeping some work-life balance as party leader with a spouse as an MPP for many years was to put their children in school around the corner from Queen's Park.

That made it easier to get to concerts and other special events and get back to work within minutes.


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