Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton will not seek re-election at the party's convention next March, saying he wants to spend more time with his family.

Hampton, 56, told delegates of his decision at an NDP provincial council meeting in Toronto on Saturday.

"I have a few things that I've always wanted to do and I'm going to get to do them now,'' he said.

That included spending more time with his 13-year-old daughter Sarah and 10-year-old son Jonathan, and going to their hockey, soccer and baseball games, he said.

"I'd hate it if I missed those things. I'd regret it for the rest of my life.''

He says he will stay on as MPP for the northern riding of Kenora-Rainy River until at least the next provincial election in 2011.

Hampton has been leader of the NDP since 1996, when he took over from former premier Bob Rae. He was first elected in 1987, and was both attorney general and natural resources minister in Rae's cabinet.

Hampton said he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Shelly Martel, who also served in Rae's cabinet in the early 1990s. She retired from provincial politics before last year's election after 20 years of representing the Sudbury riding of Nickel Belt.

Martel said her husband's decision was a difficult one.

"It was a tough decision to say, `I need to step aside and let someone else come forward,''' she said. "But I think that he recognizes too that there's also a need to put our family first.''

Hampton led the NDP through three provincial elections, but failed to make any major gains in the number of seats in the Ontario legislature. The NDP have 10 seats at Queen's Park.

His decision triggers a leadership race, but there isn't a clear frontrunner. Party insiders say the main contenders include Marilyn Churley and Frances Lankin, who lost the party's last leadership race to Hampton, along with newer members Peter Tabuns and Cheri DiNovo, who represent Toronto ridings.

Hampton urged the party to remain true to its roots as a voice for the working class while searching for a new leader.

"We need to have a robust leadership campaign,'' he told delegates. "Our leadership campaign is one of the ways that we get these issues before the people of Ontario.

Conservatives aren't going to raise them, (Premier Dalton) McGuinty and the Liberals aren't going to raise them. Only New Democrats will raise these issues.''

Dedication praised

Colleagues said Hampton took on a difficult job after the Rae years but helped rebuild the party.

"To have taken us from the Rae days to our current status, we have more members, we are doing better in terms of the polls -- it's a steady trajectory up,'' DiNovo said. "And it will continue to be.''

The other party leaders commended Hampton for his dedication as a politician.

"He's always been very passionate,'' McGuinty said in Ottawa. "He's always embraced causes that, from a polling perspective, might have been a little less than popular, and I give him a lot of credit.''

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said Hampton was a strong leader who cared for people's concerns.

"Never once did I have occasion in the time I spent in the legislature as a fellow party leader with him to question his sincerity or his integrity in advancing an issue that he was standing up to advance, whether it was to do with the environment or energy or the economy,'' Tory said.

His career

Hampton was born in Fort Frances to a blue-collar family, the son of a mill worker in a community with strong trade union principles.

He first joined the NDP when he was a teenager, and attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on a hockey scholarship. He later earned a bachelor of education from the University of Toronto and a law degree from the University of Ottawa.

Hampton worked as a lawyer for the Canadian Labour Congress and in private practice in his hometown. He also worked for the Saskatchewan NDP government of Allan Blakeney in the 1970s, and as a teacher in southern and northern Ontario.

He was elected to Queen's Park on his third attempt in 1987. When the NDP won an unexpected majority government in 1990, Hampton was appointed attorney general. He was later demoted to Minister of Natural Resources.

Hampton and Rae were not allies, as Hampton didn't agree with many of Rae's policies. After Ontario's first NDP government was trounced in 1995, Rae retired as leader and Hampton replaced him.

The NDP dropped from 17 seats to just nine in the 1999 election when some supporters and union leaders voted for the Liberals in an attempt to prevent the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris from being re-elected. Harris won, and the NDP received only 12 per cent of the popular vote -- the party's poorest election showing in nearly 50 years.

When Harris unveiled plans to privatize the public electricity utility in his second term, Hampton emerged as an advocate for public ownership of hydro. He then published a book, "Public Power: The Fight for Publicly Owned Electricity."

In the 2003 provincial election, support for the NDP dropped again, as the party won only seven seats and lost official party status for the first time in 40 years.

The NDP regained official party status in a byelection in Hamilton in 2004. Subsequent byelections have increased the NDP's seat count to 10.

With a report from CTV Toronto's Austin Delaney and files from The Canadian Press