He’s the District 3 city councilor from Dorchester, the go-to guy to get your streets plowed, your parks cleaned. Frank Baker won a competitive campaign for office in 2011 with a platform of putting constituents first, and since then has coasted through four re-elections.
Lately though, the 52-year-old has found himself in the minority — sometimes totally alone — amid an unprecedented surge of progressivism on the Boston City Council.
He spoke out against rent control, voted against regulating the short-term rental industry, and opposed a new tax on high-end real estate deals.
At the council’s first meeting of its new two-year term last month, he was the only councilor who did not support Councilor Kim Janey for president, voting present.
Baker may very well be the last vestige of the more conservative neighborhood councilor, the last traditionalist who draws a hard line between the old-school role of a fix-your-pothole councilor and the executive responsibilities of being mayor.
And he’s OK with it.
“The pathway of this new council is just an advocacy council. They’re just going to harass the mayor for the next two years,” Baker said in an interview with the Globe, in his trademark, unimpressed tone. “There’s multiple people who think they’re going to be the next mayor. So this is going to look like a campaign season in here. I question if we’re going to be able to stay focused on the business for the City Council.”
He represents his district, which stretches from the South Bay Center in Dorchester along the coastline and down to Neponset, at a historic time for the council, and his positions have made him an outsider. Dorchester, which makes up most of District 3, is one of the city’s most racially diverse neighborhoods. Black people make up 45 percent of the population, Hispanics 18 percent, and whites 22 percent, according to 2017 US Census estimates.
The 13-member council, long made up of mostly white men, is now its most ethnically and racially diverse, with a first-ever majority of women, and people of color.
Over the last two years, councilors have pushed a progressive agenda like never before.
Baker has been against most of those changes, which have been some of the biggest policy initiatives coming from City Hall. Two years ago, he opposed the council’s passage of new regulations for lobbyists, which went farther than Mayor Martin J. Walsh wanted. And he’s opposed his colleagues on issues ranging from Airbnb regulations to pushing for more oversight of natural gas leaks.
He said that he never imagined running for office himself, but was a neighborhood activist who wanted a seat at the table. Married, and from a well-known family in Dorchester, he had been a city employee for more than two decades, and was working in the print department when he was laid off nearly 10 years ago. Not long after, he decided to run.
He is a longtime friend of the mayor, and Walsh — then a state representative — was one of the few neighborhood leaders who supported his first run for council.
To Baker, council business means constituent services, tending to parks and playgrounds and streets and schools. He said the city doesn’t talk enough about the need for more job training.
He’s a registered Democrat, but often refers to “the left” to describe what he called liberal-leaning, Washington, D.C.-level policies the council should have no business trying to impose on the people it serves. If he’s talking about climate change, he said, he wants to know how it will affect developments along Morrissey Boulevard.
On transportation, he said, “I get a kick out of everyone talking about a free T, I mean, that’s a populous message. You’re just telling people that don’t have money, ‘we’re going to give you free T,’ and nobody here can deliver free T. Those messages, I think, are disingenuous.”
Recently, Lawrence officials said a pilot program to offer free bus rides was successful, and officials in Worcester are considering a similar effort. Councilor Michelle Wu, whose push for the T to be free was largely a motivator for those efforts, has called for a similar pilot program that would eliminate fares on a bus route through one of Boston’s poorer neighborhoods.
Baker doesn’t see it happening.
“I’d love the T to be free. But really? Free? One bus line?,” he asked rhetorically.
At a time that council leaders say the city is in a position to be bold, coasting on a booming economy, Baker counters that they haven’t seen downtimes in city government like he has, they haven’t seen the consequences of layoffs.
“They think nothing of the economics behind expanded government,” he said.
His job, Baker said, is “however I need to respond to or deal with issues that are happening in District 3.” That includes, he said, the opioid crisis, which is rooted in his district at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where many treatment providers are concentrated.
“That is an issue that, you know, it’s not like you get a huge bounce. It’s not one of those sexy issues that the left wants to glamour all around. They want to just mention it and not get into the weeds,” he said. But, he said, “That’s going to be one of the biggest issues we have over the next 20 years.”
Stephen J. Murphy, the Suffolk County register of deeds who served nearly two decades on the City Council — and was its president when Baker took office — said in an interview that a district councilor has an obligation to tend to the needs of his district. He would not comment on the makeup of the current council, but said he had always focused on “what was in front of me, and what I could impact.”
He said Baker, “is a traditionalist. He knows the role, better than most. He’s been in there, he knows what he can impact, and when.”
Councilor Matt O’Malley, the body’s longest-serving councilor, from Jamaica Plain, added though that a councilor can think big picture while focusing on constituent services. He said, for instance, that he has worked with residents on issues like street repairs and local development, while also proposing environmental protection reforms, such as a ban on plastic bags (Baker voted yes). He also spearheaded an ordinance regulating how the city responds to gas leaks (Baker voted no).
“I reject the notion that the role of a councilor is to focus only on big picture legislative issues or focus solely on constituent services,” he said. “Indeed, I think an effective councilor will be able to do both.”
That job description will become clear over the next two years as the council, led by a supermajority of progressives, continues to push for reforms. Councilor Lydia Edwards, for instance, recently called for a review of the city charter, which could include a review of city government’s power structure.
Meantime, Baker said, “I’ll be focused on District 3.”
“If the people of District 3 still like me and want to send me,” he said, “I’ll come back for as long as they want to send me here, whether I’m traditional or nontraditional or whatever it is.”