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Veteran MPP Gilles Bisson said Monday he plans to run for the leadership of the Ontario NDP, making him the first to announce his intentions.

Mr. Bisson, 51, has not officially announced his leadership bid, but he confirmed widespread speculation that he intends to run. He said as NDP leader he would focus on building a stronger economy to bring about reforms to social justice.

"I believe that Ontario's in deep trouble today economically," he told reporters. "We don't have a vision about what we [should]do with this economy."

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Mr. Bisson, who has represented the Northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay since 1990, seeks to replace Howard Hampton, who announced his retirement last month after 12 years as leader.

Mr. Hampton's departure triggered a wide-open race for leader of the 10-member caucus at the provincial legislature. At least three other caucus members are also believed to be interested in the job, including Toronto-area MPPs Michael Prue and Peter Tabuns, and Andrea Horwath from Hamilton.

Mr. Bisson is the only contender from the north, but he said he was just as able to represent voters in large urban centres in Southern Ontario. He described himself as "an urban guy" who just happens to live in Northern Ontario.

"We have cities in Northern Ontario," he said. "They're called Timmins, they're called Sudbury, they're called Thunder Bay."

Mr. Hampton, 56, the Ivy League-educated son of a mill worker, was first elected in 1987 in the Northern Ontario riding of Kenora-Rainy River. He became NDP leader in 1996 and had the difficult task of leading the NDP after the crushing defeat of Bob Rae's government in 1995. Ever since, the NDP has remained a distant third in the polls.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bisson said he is running not just to be leader of the opposition.

"I'm running because I want to be premier," he said.

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