TORONTO - Former Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton received praise and thanks for decades of public service Saturday after announcing he will not run for re-election Oct. 6, making him the second of 10 elected New Democrats to withdraw from the fall campaign.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Hampton announced that after 35 years in politics — 24 of them as the MPP for Kenora-Rainy River — it was time for a change.
"In the back of my mind I've been asking myself 'Are you absolutely sure you really want to do this for another four years?' " said the 59-year-old Hampton. "I guess over the last couple weeks I've come to the conclusion I could do it, but do I really want to do it? And the answer is it's time, it's time to go."
His children, 16-year-old Sarah and 13-year-old Jonathan, also played a key role in his decision.
"That's the crucial part, there's only a couple years before they'll both be out the door," he said. "I've had more than a few people say to me 'Don't find yourself in a position where you're asking where did it all go.' "
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who frequently squared off against a fired-up Hampton in the legislature and famously refused to grant the NDP official party status after it won only seven seats in the 2003 election that swept the Liberals to power, wished his opponent luck in the future.
"Howard always brought passion to issues we debated in the legislature or during election campaigns," McGuinty said in a statement. "Howard has represented his constituents well in one of Ontario's largest ridings."
Hampton stepped down as NDP leader in March 2009 and was succeeded by Andrea Horwath of Hamilton, who praised her predecessor for steering the party through the "difficult times" after the defeat of the Bob Rae-led NDP government in 1995, and for his dedication to helping people.
"Whether it was tackling the challenge of rebuilding our party, confronting the supposedly unstoppable forces privatizing our hydro system, or convincing a Hamilton City Councillor that she could run for office and win, Howie has been a relentless happy warrior, a great leader, a friend and a true New Democrat," Horwath said in a statement.
"He may be focusing more of his time on being a great father and husband, but I know his commitment won't wane, and for that I thank him."
Hampton, who went to the Ivy League's Dartmouth College on a hockey scholarship, has a degree in education from the University of Toronto and a law degree from the University of Ottawa.
After failed bids in 1977 and 1985 in the then-Liberal stronghold of Kenora, Hampton was finally successful in the 1987 election, and was promoted to cabinet when the party won a majority in 1990.
He took over leadership of Ontario's New Democrats following the Mike Harris Conservative sweep in 1995 that defeated the only NDP government in the province's history, led by Bob Rae.
Getting elected for the first time in 1987 after two failed attempts was a career highlight, said Hampton, as was the party's stunning election victory over David Peterson's Liberals in 1990, and winning the NDP leadership in 1996.
He led the New Democrats through three elections, but his leadership reached a low ebb when the NDP lost official party status, and the important taxpayer funding that goes with it, in the 2003 vote.
Winning several byelections during his time as leader was another career highlight, said Hampton, who had to be prodded for answers after insisting he never really thought about such things.
"Between 1999 and 2007, winning the byelections was really important for us," he said. "Every one we won put us back on the map, and if we'd lost them it would have taken us off the map."
Hampton, who was attorney general and minister of natural resources in the Rae government, "always stuck up for the little guy, the worker who couldn't get a fair deal or First Nations struggling on limited incomes," said NDP press secretary Marion Nader, wiping a tear from her eye.
Hampton downplayed any suggestions he did anything out of the ordinary in always fighting passionately for workers and families less fortunate than others.
"It's because of where I grew up," he said. "You don't find many wealthy people in Kenora-Rainy River. That's just a reflection of where I come from."
Hampton married his wife, Shelly Martel, when they were both cabinet ministers the Rae government, and she served as the New Democrat MPP for Sudbury until just before the 2007 election.
Having a young family led by two elected politicians made for some busy and interesting days for all of them, said Hampton, especially as they tried to balance family with time at the legislature and constituency work in two northern ridings.
"There were times when we would literally exchange the kids at the airport," he said. "It was always busy, but because the kids went to school right by the legislature, I could walk outside my office door, or Shelly could, and be at their school in two minutes."
Hampton said the federal party's move up to Official Opposition status in the May 2 election helped convince him the Ontario NDP would have a great result this fall, and that he could now bow out.
He hasn't decided what to do next, other than helping Horwath and the NDP in the Ontario campaign.
"I'm still a lawyer in good standing, which means I'm licensed to commit mayhem in the courtrooms of Ontario still, and I still have my teaching certificate, but I'd probably have to do something to update it," he said. "I've got some options and I am thinking about some things."