Brian Mason likes to paint himself as a defender of the little guy. But he has big hopes heading into the 2012 provincial election.

Mason, now 58, was born in Calgary. He first became politically active at the university level. After studying political science at the University of Alberta, he was executive director of the Alberta Federation of Students from 1977 to 1979.

Mason worked as a city bus driver for years with the Edmonton Transit System after leaving university. An early scrap that put him in the limelight involved a legal challenge he spearheaded. 

A provincial law prohibited municipal employees from running as candidates in civic elections - unless they resigned their jobs. Mason lost his bid to quash the law, but it was later changed anyway.

Former city councillor

Before jumping into provincial politics, Mason honed his skills in politics as a city councillor in Edmonton for 11 years.

After winning a council seat on council for the first time in 1989, he quickly developed a reputation as a scrappy, media-savvy, politician.

He brands himself as a defender of "the average Alberta family" and blue collar workers from the onslaught of corporate interests.

Following the resignation of former NDP leader Pam Barrett, Mason was elected in a June 2000 byelection in Edmonton-Highlands, a riding stretching northeast of downtown renamed Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood in 2003 following a boundary redesign.

He was re-elected three times — in 2001, 2004 and 2008 — each time fending off second-place Progressive Conservative candidates by margins of between 1,100 and 3,850 votes.

Mason was acting leader for a time following the resignation of leader Raj Pannu in July 2004. A vote at a party convention made his leadership official in September of 2004. In the general election that year, the NDP caucus doubled from two to four.

It has since dropped back to two, with Mason joined after the 2008 election by newcomer Rachel Notley, who won the Edmonton-Strathcona seat formerly held by Pannu.

Vote-splitting on the right a factor?

At the legislature, Mason has carved out a reputation of mixing passion and humour with politics, using props like knitting needles and rubber ducks to poke fun at the government.

Mason says he’s looking for seat gains heading into the election. He argues that riding battles between the Conservatives and Wildrose will split the conservative vote, favouring the New Democrats more than the Liberals, still trying to define themselves under a leader who ran in the last election as a Tory.

As well, Mason says the provincial party could get a boost from the last federal election, where the party fared well nationally as a credible alternative, gaining the title of Official Opposition in Ottawa for the first time in Canadian history.

But the big question, Mason says, is whether Alison Redford’s Tories can distance themselves from some of the foibles of the Tory past.

"I think it’ll come down to: Can the Conservatives really convince people that they’ve changed their spots," he says.

Pollster Bruce Cameron says recent polling suggests the two-MLA NDP caucus could gain two or three seats in Edmonton where support is concentrated in certain areas. But the issue of leadership also hangs over the party, Cameron suggests.

"Another issue the NDP is going to have to address is,  when is Brian Mason — who is fairly popular and has performed fairly effectively in the legislature — when does he give way to Rachel Notley?" says Cameron.

Mason has lived in his riding for over 20 years. He and his wife Karin have two sons, Peter and Alex.