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Ontario Votes 2003

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Election Day: Oct. 2, 2003   

Howard Hampton
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Howard Hampton

Ernie Eves and Dalton McGuinty are in the campaign of their political lives. When the ballots are counted, the man with the most seats gets to run the province, but the runner-up will have to give up the dream of ever being elected premier of Ontario.

For Howard Hampton, the options are different but the stakes are almost as high.

He is, after all, the person who led Ontario's New Democrats to their worst showing ever in the last provincial election; under Hampton, the NDP won even fewer seats in 1999 than they did in the resounding defeat of 1995 that swept their one-term government from power. Worse still, victories in just nine ridings meant the party was stripped of its automatic right to official party status in the legislature.

Barring a miracle - or campaign disasters of truly mythic proportions for the Liberals and Conservatives - there's no chance that Hampton will lead the next government of Ontario. In fact, it's extremely unlikely that Hampton will ever occupy the premier's office.

But that's not to say the campaign of 2003 is of no consequence, either to the NDP or to its leader.

For Hampton, a 16-year veteran of the legislature, this election represents a chance to repair damage the NDP suffered on his watch.

Like McGuinty, his first campaign as leader was so thoroughly overwhelmed in 1999 that it was hard to tell how much of his political damage was self-inflicted and how much was collateral damage as Mike Harris's Tory tide swept the province for a second time. Nonetheless, Hampton was leader during that debacle, and many in his party will hold him accountable, whatever his perceived strengths or failings.

It may help him that, since 1999, Ontario's political landscape has changed. Once again, Hampton is squaring off against a Tory premier whose platform - with its tough lines on teachers and the homeless, among others - is filled with the kind of policies that are easy for a New Democrat to oppose.

But where Harris was a dogged proponent of his party's so-called "common sense revolution" in 1999, current Tory leader Eves has been a reluctant convert to the hard-line policies that twice brought his predecessor to power. Hampton benefits simply by comparison: no flip-flopper, he's been a reliable opponent of Harris-era policies since they were first introduced, while Eves has spent the vast majority of his term as premier trying to distance himself from them, only to undergo an eleventh-hour conversion when polls showed dwindling support for a kinder Tory party.

If Hampton can capitalize on that consistent adherence to his party's principals - and he will certainly benefit if they come back into fashion during the campaign - he could return the NDP to official party status and retire with honour.

An even better outcome for Hampton would be a strong showing in an election where Tory and Liberal support is evenly divided; that could result in a minority government, with Hampton dictating the terms under which his members would support a Liberal government.

The worst-case scenario? A campaign that results in even fewer seats for the NDP. In that event, Hampton would be humiliated, his resignation as leader all but assured. His party, doomed to spend another five years on the political sidelines, would face an even tougher struggle in the next election.



Howard Hampton: A life in politics

1952: Born in Fort Frances. Hampton went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on a hockey scholarship, and later took degrees in education (University of Toronto) and law (University of Ottawa).

1977: Makes first run for the New Democrats in the Rainy River riding. He is defeated.

1985: Loses second campaign in Rainy River.

1987: Third time lucky, Hampton wins the Rainy River seat. Named justice critic by NDP leader Bob Rae.

1990: Hampton's second victory comes in a landslide that sweeps the NDP to power. He is named attorney general in Rae's cabinet.

1993: Moved from attorney general to the natural resources portfolio; one commentator notes that Hampton is the only member of cabinet who doesn't see it as a demotion.

1994: Hampton marries Shelley Martel, the NDP MPP for Nickel Belt.

1995: Tories crush the New Democrats in general election. Hampton re-elected in Rainy River.

1996: Hampton defeats favourite Frances Lankin to become NDP leader.

1999: In his first general election as NDP leader, Hampton guides the party to its lowest share of the popular vote ever. Just nine members are elected.

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