Long-time New Democrat Mike Farnworth jumped into the leadership race Thursday and jumped out of the closet.

Farnworth, 52, said he has never felt the need to publicly declare that he is gay until now. He also said he's in a happy and committed 22-year relationship with his partner, Doug.

He told reporters he kept his relationship private in the past, but is now making it public because "I haven't been running for the leader of the NDP before."

If elected NDP leader, Farnworth will become the first openly gay leader of a provincial political party in Canada and could become the country's first openly gay premier if the New Democrats defeat the Liberals in the 2013 election.

Farnworth, who often uses his cutting wit and sharp questions to attack the Liberals, said he wants to unite the divided New Democrats to win the next election.

He said he's the right person for the job.

Farnworth made his leadership announcement at a Port Coquitlam community centre surrounded by long-time friends and more than 100 supporters.

Farnworth, who has lived in the suburban Vancouver community for almost 40 years, was first elected to city council there when he was 24 years old.

Farnworth is the fifth -- and so far most well-known -- candidate to enter the April 17 race to replace former leader Carole James, who resigned last month amid an internal caucus feud over her continued leadership.

New Democrat MLA's Harry Lali, Nicholas Simons and John Horgan and pot activist Dana Larsen have already entered the contest. Adrian Dix, who is also known as one of the toughest street-fighting New Democrats, is expected to enter the race Monday.

Farnworth told the crowd he will ensure the New Democrats are viewed as a government-in-waiting through a solid economic, social and environmental agenda.

"The NDP's challenge is not about moving to the left or the middle, it's about being relevant," he said.

The Opposition house leader was a James loyalist, and said he wants to heal the split in the NDP that led to James' departure.

He said he has already started the groundwork to heal the split in the party that saw at least a dozen caucus members, including well-known New Democrats Jenny Kwan and Lali, openly oppose James.

Farnworth said Norm Macdonald, who quit his post as Opposition caucus chairman during the James mutiny, supports his leadership bid. Macdonald was on his way to Port Coquitlam, but heavy snow in his Interior riding in the Golden area prevented him from attending personally.

"The days of infighting are over," Farnworth said. "And the days of healing and unity begin now."

Farnworth lashed out at the Liberal government and what he called the five Campbell clones who are running to succeed him as leader. Farnworth did not mention former Parksville mayor Ed Mayne, who is also running for Liberal leader.

He said the Liberal leadership candidates are tied to the Campbell government's record of declining health care and education and rising gang violence.

Farnworth said Liberal leadership hopeful Christy Clark, a former education minister, is also a Campbell follower and any attempts by her campaign to paint her as a fresh voice are false and come across as deja vu.

Farnworth said the Liberals always make a point of saying how they took British Columbia from the economic basement to the penthouse during the last decade, but now the province is only tops in Canada when it comes to child poverty.

He said he would launch a provincewide education commission and a public inquiry into the B.C. Rail scandal, which saw the Liberals pay $6 million in legal bills for two men who pled guilty at a corruption trial.

Farnworth said he will use the carbon tax to pay for improved public transportation.

He said he will respect the wishes of British Columbians on the controversial harmonized sales tax, which he called a "Liberal mess."

"We will clean it up," he said, of the HST, which will be the subject of a provincewide referendum in the fall.

Farnworth wouldn't pledge an NDP government would get rid of the tax, saying the referendum had to come first.

Farnworth was first elected in the Port Coquitlam riding in 1991 and has held high-profile cabinet positions in the former NDP government of the 1990's, including health minister and minister of social development.

Farnworth said he will offer the people of British Columbia a new approach to politics that leans heavily on listening to everybody, including the many people made invisible under the Liberals.

"British Columbians are ready for change and I am ready to lead B.C.'s New Democrats into the next election and into government," said Farnworth.