I wasnâe(TM)t a Howard Hampton supporter during the last Ontario NDP leadership contest (in 1996), but I quickly became one after he was elected leader. Iâe(TM)m not talking about merely a âeoerally behind the leader for the good of the partyâe type of support; but genuine fondness, an admiration for both his work ethic and his leadership ability, and an eagerness to do everything I could to support his efforts.

Thatâe(TM)s not to say that Iâe(TM)m trying to convince him not to quit, a decision that he announced last weekend. For one thing, heâe(TM)s earned a rest. The job of political leader is incredibly demanding: not only do you have to be constantly available, but you have to be constantly âeoeon.âe To do so for 12 years (13 by the time his resignation is effective), through three election campaigns, is the most that any party can expect from a leader in terms of commitment.

The cliché notion of a politician quitting âeoeto spend more time with his familyâe generally produces snickers and cynicism from pundits (particularly in a province where a certain former premier quit to spend more time with his family and ended up spending more time with his new girlfriend instead). But, in Hamptonâe(TM)s case, there is little doubt that he actually means it when he cites the need for family time as his motivation for leaving.

Even though there was no real agitation in the party for Hampton to step down (unlike in the Ontario PCs, where the eponymous John Tory faced an open challenge to his leadership after last fallâe(TM)s election), Iâe(TM)d suggest that this is partially because most people simply assumed that he would be doing so on his own schedule.

If he had stuck it out as leader, the harsh reality facing Hampton was this: people liked him well enough (and some people liked him a lot), but they were no more likely to make him their premier on a fourth opportunity than they were on their first three opportunities, when the NDP either lost seats or merely held on to the numbers that they had.

While itâe(TM)s fair to say that Hampton could never expect to see the word âeoemaniaâe tacked on to the end of his name, the fact is that he was facing opponents who were equally unlikely to set the world on fire with their rhetorical skills: Dalton McGuinty for the Liberals and Mike Harris, Ernie Eves and John Tory for the Conservatives). Indeed, the popular consensus after each of the three leadership debates in which Hampton participated is that he won them on points.

So, what held Hampton back? Iâe(TM)d put his lack of success down to three main factors: Bob Rae, Mike Harris and the media.

Rae, as he re-invents himself as a federal Liberal, seems to be held accountable for none of his legacy, while that record hangs like a millstone around the collective neck of his former party. Heâe(TM)s also a persistent critic who loves to feed attacks that damage the NDP (as if he hadnâe(TM)t done enough on that front already). If I had a dollar for every time that I heard a voter say, âeoeEven Bob Rae doesnâe(TM)t support the NDP anymore, so why should I?âe Iâe(TM)d haveâe¦ well, a lot more money to contribute to the NDP. Well-founded arguments that Rae was always a Liberal at heart donâe(TM)t seem to work outside of the core group NDP apparatchiks.

Paradoxically, the fact that Mike Harris was such an unmitigated disaster as premier (as was his protégé Ernie Eves) was also blamed on the NDP. Apparently, the NDP was responsible for the Common Sense Revolution because they âeoeopened the doorâe for right wing policies. To some people in Ontario, Hampton bears particularly responsibility for the fact that Harris was able to win re-election in 1999 (because he insisted on showing up for the campaign instead of endorsing the Liberals). If it sounds like Iâe(TM)m mocking these notions, itâe(TM)s because I am. But, like the aforementioned meme about Rae, Iâe(TM)ve heard them often enough that they must have fairly widespread acceptance.

Blaming the media seems like a cop-out, but thereâe(TM)s no escaping the fact that Hampton was not treated kindly by reporters and pundits (when they acknowledged his existence). When he finally lashed out at the media last fall for ignoring key issues (due to their singular focus on the school funding debate), he was saying something that he had likely wanted and needed to say for the better part of a decade. He also got an answer to his question: no, for the most part, the media does not care about most of the important issues of the day.

Howard Hampton can leave the position of leader with his head held high. He kept the party alive during a period when many people thought that the plug should be pulled. Obviously, handing over to his successor a party on life support was not his objective when he first decided to run for leader. But, for New Democrats, a party on life support is far preferable to a dead party.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for rabble.ca. He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...