Bevan Dufty cleaning up the 16th Street Mission BART station plaza, Nov. 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Susie Neilson-Mission Local)
Bevan Dufty cleaning up the 16th Street Mission BART station plaza, Nov. 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Susie Neilson-Mission Local)

Q&A: The hands-on public official cleaning up BART

Name: Bevan Dufty

Age: 62

City: San Francisco

Position: BART director, District 9 

J.: Many know you as a San Francisco supervisor from 2002 to 2011, a mayoral candidate and the city’s “homeless czar,” but you’ve had a career in government that dates back some four decades. What’s the thumbnail sketch of your history of public service? 

Bevan Dufty: In San Francisco, I worked for former Supervisor Susan Leal and then as an adviser to former Mayor Willie Brown. But before that, starting in 1976, I served as an aide in the New York office of the late Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. I became chief legislative assistant to Julian Dixon, the late congressman from Los Angeles, in 1979. I worked closely with Rep. Dixon to secure funding for Los Angeles’ Metro Rail agency. Now that I am with BART, it feels as if my career has come full circle.

You recently celebrated your first year on the BART board. It has not been a quiet ride for you. Why is that?

I got into a dust-up with BART management over the lack of cleaning resources in my district, particularly at the Powell, Civic and 16th Street stations. I started going out to the 16th Street station to sweep the plaza. So now they have given me some daytime cleaners to deal with public defecation and drug activity.

I’m getting some of what I want — there’s been a little push and pull — but we need to be concerned because BART ridership was down 4 percent in 2017. It’s not just drugs and lack of cleanliness. BART needs a new train control system. It dates back to the 1960s. With the $3.5 million bond that voters passed in 2016, BART will get a new control system over the next five years, plus we will add hundreds of new trains to the system and substantially rebuild escalators. It will be a new golden era of BART.

Bevan Dufty with his 11-year-old, Sid

Any other plans for BART?

We’re hoping to build a new Transbay Tube. But that’s 10 years or more down the road. It’s a big-picture item for BART. I’m also interested in connecting the Mission Bay area to BART.

You’re also known as one of many out LGBT public officials. But fewer people might be aware that you’re Jewish and that you strongly identify with your Judaism.

Judaism has been a part of the fabric of my life. It’s something that many people don’t know about me. That’s because my father, William Dufty, was not Jewish. He wasn’t in the picture for most of my childhood, because my dad split up with my mom when I was 5 years old. My mother, Maely, was born in a part of Czechoslovakia that later became part of Germany. She lost most of her family to the Holocaust, although my grandmother, who died one year before I was born, made it to Israel.

My mother perceived herself as an “other,” someone who was stateless and dispossessed, when she came to this country. Being an outsider made her more compassionate, connected and able to work with other communities. Over the years, she ran the National Council of Negro Women on 116th Street in Harlem, and she worked for the Navajo Nation. She also published the Harlem News.

Bevan Dufty, age 2, with his godmother, the jazz singer Billie Holiday, in April 1957 (Photo/© 2017 Jerry Dantzic-Jerry Dantzic Archives)
Bevan Dufty, age 2, with his godmother, the jazz singer Billie Holiday, in April 1957 (Photo/© 2017 Jerry Dantzic-Jerry Dantzic Archives)

You had a rather unconventional childhood on the Upper West Side, rubbing elbows with celebrities. Who were they?

My mother managed and booked the singer Billie Holiday. She also managed Charlie Parker. She met Billie the first night [my mom] was in the United States. She went to Harlem to hear jazz, which her own mother disapproved of. When I was a small child, we had piano and jam sessions with Billie, who was my godmother. She taught my mother to curse like a sailor. It was an unorthodox childhood. My mother was married seven times, once to the child movie actor Freddy Bartholomew. My father, an author, journalist and union organizer, was co-author of Billie’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” and married the actress Gloria Swanson.

Social justice issues were clearly a big part of how you experienced your Jewishness growing up. Any organized religion?

I went to Hebrew school twice. I also went to the YMHA’s — the 92nd Street Y’s — day camp. Over the years, when I lived in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, I went to synagogues there. I also went to Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.

You have your own family now. Give us a glimpse into your personal life.

I met my partner when a friend brought him to a Passover seder at my house. That was 5½ years ago. I also have a child, Sid, who will have a b’nai mitzvah in 2019 at Congregation Emanu-El, which we love. It’s a wonderful spiritual home.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.