Frank Baker is leaving office. His style of politics may go with him

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Outgoing City Councilor Frank Baker talks building trades with Aiyana Lakes. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Outgoing City Councilor Frank Baker talks building trades with Aiyana Lakes. (Simón Rios/WBUR)

On a recent afternoon, Frank Baker stopped by a local nonprofit, YouthBuild, to do what he loves — talk about the building trades and how to get more local students involved.

"I wanted to see your shop because for me, it's like a hands-and-head sort of thing," Baker said. "So I want to see what you do."

It's the end of a chapter for Baker as he exits the Boston City Council and caps a 12-year run in politics. Especially in recent years, the Dorchester native has developed what some supporters call a voice of moderation, pushing back against the council's progressive majority on issues like rent control, addressing the troubled "Mass. and Cass" area and redrawing the electoral map.

Yet on a council dominated by left-leaning politicians and people of color, he's often seen as a holdover from Old Boston. Baker is a pugilist more in the mold of James Michael Curley than his role model and childhood buddy Walsh — a mayor with whom Baker could disagree but still get along.

But many Dorchester residents say they’ll miss a councilor they’ve come to rely on to navigate city government. Baker told WBUR that his bread and butter has long been having strong relationships with people in city government.

"I've treated people well my whole life and so when I call, the city workers are happy to help me to help the people in Boston," he said.

Baker first ran for the council after Mayor Tom Menino closed down the City Hall print shop, where Baker had worked for 25 years, many of those as a union steward. Entering politics was a natural next step.

"In Dorchester, unfortunately, everything tends to be a fight," he said. "It's in our blood. You grow up playing street hockey and working on political campaigns."

Those campaigns pitted him against Menino, Boston longest-serving mayor. But when Marty Walsh took the reins in 2014, Baker had an inside line to City Hall. The two were longtime allies since before Baker entered politics, and they had a shared history: they went to St. Margaret’s grammar school together.

But the election of Mayor Michelle Wu helped cast Baker as an outsider, he said, and his relationships with city employees and fellow councilors have suffered.

"I get viewed as conservative, or whatever — I'm exactly in the middle, I think," Baker said. He lamented the council's shift to the left, and a sense that those in the minority should back down.

"I refuse to shut up," he said.

When the council was fighting last year over redrawing the city’s voting districts, Baker went old school. He said Catholic priests in Dorchester were grumbling about the plan, and accused councilor Liz Breadon, who’s from Northern Ireland, of being anti-Catholic.

Baker would later apologize for the comments, which many considered shocking at the time. Many people will recall them as part of his legacy.

Bill Forry, who’s covered Baker throughout his career for the Dorchester Reporter, said Baker’s remarks were out of step with today’s Boston.

A federal judge eventually rejected that redistricting plan, saying opponents like Baker “demonstrated a likelihood of success” in arguing the map improperly used race as a factor in drawing new districts.

Baker's "objections to the redistricting matter were borne out," Forry said. "So, I mean, he did something right there."

Despite Baker’s controversial headlines, his supporters say what's really mattered is his hand in improving the city.

Kim Thai, a leader in Dorchester's Vietnamese community, said Baker was an early advocate for the formation of the neighborhood’s Little Saigon cultural district.

" The first time I ever encountered him, he was advocating for a Vietnamese business," to take part in city programs that not everyone in the community is aware of, Thai said.

Thai chairs the board of the nonprofit VietAid and previously worked for the city. She said Baker is always there for Vietnamese folks — and he’s an independent voice on the council. Now she's sad to see him go.

"I would prefer to have someone who is willing to go out on a limb and stand on a political island for what they believe in," she said. "It's a rare breed to be willing to do that politically."

Duncan Coakley, left, of the nonprofit YouthBuild, talks shop with District 3 Councilor Frank Baker. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Duncan Coakley, left, of the nonprofit YouthBuild, talks shop with District 3 Councilor Frank Baker. (Simón Rios/WBUR)

State Sen. Nick Collins is another Boston pol who's been tight with Baker over the years. Collins said Baker identifies with members of the city's Vietnamese community in part because many are veterans who fought alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Baker's uncle, Donald Baker, returned paralyzed after serving in Vietnam, and had a square dedicated to him after he died.

Collins listed a litany of parks, playgrounds, libraries and other city amenities that improved over the course of Baker's tenure.

"He's leaving the district in better shape than he found it," Collins said.

But not everybody in the neighborhood is a fan. Stephen McBride, 33, ran against Baker in 2021, hoping, he said, to better represent constituents who felt left out of politics. McBride acknowledged Baker's role in fostering development in Dorchester, but said many at the bottom of the income ladder haven't enjoyed the benefits of a gentrifying city.

In the race to fill the District 3 seat, McBride is backing Joel Richards, a public school teacher and pastor who’s the son of Jamaican immigrants. Richards supports rent control and an elected school committee. The Boston Teachers Union donated to his campaign, which is also supported by the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Baker, meanwhile, has endorsed John FitzGerald, who, like him, comes from a politically connected Boston family. Marty Walsh also supports FitzGerald, as do the city’s police and firefighters’ unions.

Campaign finance records show FitzGerald has out-raised Richards by a greater than three-to-one margin since December when FitzGerald launched his campaign.

It remains to be seen whether the next City Council will have a member who emerges as the spiritual successor to Baker. Forry, of the Dorchester Reporter, said it’s hard to imagine anyone filling Baker’s shoes, at least right away.

Baker said he has no regrets about his reputation as a straight talker. But even he admits the district is ready for someone who, in his words, “people don’t wanna fight all the time.”

This story has been updated to correct that Fitzgerald's family is from Boston, but not Dorchester.

This article was originally published on November 03, 2023.

This segment aired on November 3, 2023.


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Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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