In a year of historic political change in Boston, watching the reelection campaign of Dorchester City Councilor Frank Baker is like stepping into a way-back machine.

The 53-year-old Dorchester native, an old-style Boston Democrat — he has a poster in his office of former mayor/governor/congressman/convict/legend James Michael Curley — is seeking a sixth term representing the city's 3rd District.

Challenging Baker is 31-year-old Pennsylvania-born Stephen McBride, a proud progressive whose political heroes are Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Georgia voting rights activist and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. McBride moved to Boston for college and now lives in Jones Hill with his husband.

If money raised were a reliable forecast, Baker would be a cinch for reelection. He enjoys a five-to-one advantage over McBride. But if McBride were to beat the odds, the upset would be akin to a political earthquake for Dorchester and the city.

The matchup — one of only two council races this year where an incumbent faces a challenger — offers a case study in the city's shifting politics: One of Boston's more conservative pols is tested in a year Michelle Wu, an unabashed progressive and full-throated advocate of rent control, appears to be the front-runner in the mayoral race.

On The Campaign Trail

On a recent, crisp October morning, Baker stood outside his campaign headquarters and constantly paused his strategizing with volunteers to wave at drivers honking their support as they cruised down Savin Hill Avenue.

"My opponent says nobody knows me," Baker quipped when asked about the friendly interruptions.

A man in a T-shirt gestures with his hands as he speaks with another person in a restaurant parking lot.
Boston City Councilor Frank Baker.
Saraya Wintersmith GBH News

"What I've prided myself on is being that conduit into City Hall," said Baker, recalling the early days of his tenure to his campaign volunteers. "Thirty years ago, we had no good parks, all our playgrounds were dirty, the fields were [expletive]." Now, he says, "We have new libraries, new parks, city services have really gone to the next level. I'm afraid that will all suffer if we aren't vocal about this election."

For McBride, the race is about bringing a "collaborative" approach from District 3 to the council. It's a characteristic he said he has cultivated through his work as a project manager — and one he's found wanting in his opponent.

"I found multiple times where it's not just that he's on the side of the council that I may not agree with, but he is alone on an island," McBride told GBH News. For instance, Baker cast the only votes against creating the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency; against a home rule petition for Election Day voter registration; and against a resolution endorsing a moratorium on rent payments during the pandemic.

"It sends the wrong message — that we support those votes and that District 3 is on that side, and I don't think most of my neighbors are," McBride said.

Baker's tendency to be the odd man out inspired the Boston Globe to label him " Councilor No," a nickname he said he considers a "badge of honor."

"I have my own mind, I own my votes," he said when asked about the sobriquet.

Baker contends the council, now filled with progressives and more diverse than it has ever been, has adopted a "herd mentality" in an era of politics featuring social media-fueled blowback for unpopular positions.

Challenger Stephen McBride.
Brendan Capuano

"There were people on the council that wished they voted with me, but didn't want to get harassed in the Twitterverse," said Baker, the only City Councilor without a Twitter account.

At one point last year, Baker said the virtual rage over his opposition to the non-binding rent moratorium resolution morphed into actual harassment.

"I had people climbing all over my house, I had fireworks being shot at my house, I had a fire behind my house, I had all my phones ringing, my wife's phone ringing, my phone ringing, people [calling to] harass me, call me a scumbag," he recalled. The situation, he added, made it difficult for his wife to support his decision to run for reelection.

"That's new politics," he said. "That's only because I disagreed."

Still, Baker said he feels responsible for his district, which is why he said he's running again.

Where The Candidates Stand

Baker and McBride both are trying to reach out to new voters. Baker's campaign passed out registration forms to voting-age players at a local hockey rink; McBride's campaign website is translated in Cape Verdean Creole and Vietnamese.

The two haven't debated the entire campaign season — a circumstance Baker acknowledges could have given his opponent facetime with voters — but they differ sharply on some of the season's biggest issues.

Both say alleviating the population suffering from mental health, substance abuse and housing challenges near the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, or "Mass and Cass," would be a top priority.

Baker supports Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins' plan to move Mass and Cass dwellers into the South Bay Correctional Center, while McBride supports it only if the city uses involuntary commitment to the center sparingly.

"Some people will likely need that, that's not where I would want to start," McBride said, adding that he wants to be careful not to criminalize anyone or obstruct their rights.

McBride said he supports expanding the "inclusionary development policy" — which compels developers to contribute to Boston's affordable housing stock — and is open to taxes on high end real estate sales and properties left vacant.

Of these proposals, Baker said he would only consider supporting the luxury tax.

Regarding the city's ballot question about whether to return to an elected school committee, McBride supports at least a majority of members being elected, while Baker supports a majority of school committee members being mayoral appointees.

“Ultimately it’s the mayor that needs to call the shots on the schools,” he said.

Baker supports turning Boston's lone vocational technical high school, Madison Park, into a regional vocational school for Suffolk County.

McBride said he'd like to push to ensure every Boston Public Schools student has home internet access.

Baker opposes the ballot question that would give city councilors more power to sway the city's budget process and bring a measure of citizen participatory budgeting to City Hall.

"Do we want a civics lesson, or do we want to have good budgets," Baker said, contending the move would negatively impact the city's excellent bond rating.

McBride supports the question.

"I don't really buy into the narrative that 13 adults can't work collaboratively and that [the budget process] will devolve into fiefdoms," McBride said. "And then on participatory budgeting, I think the general populace having more of a say in where their money is spent is never a bad thing."

The race hasn't been poll-tested and wasn't on the preliminary ballot, so there's no proxy for how the district is feeling save for the mayoral results. Mayoral finalist Annissa Essaibi George, whom Baker has endorsed, won half of the 32 precincts within the district in the Sept. 14 prelimnary election.