Sharky Laguana was once one of many San Francisco natives who couldn’t name his regional director. During the pandemic, however, he has become a household name in local politics as chair of the Small Business Council for his outspoken advocacy for small business and many other issues.
A founding member of the indie rock band Creeper Lagoon, Laguana came to San Francisco as a teenager and spent time sleeping on the streets before starting a Bandago van rental company and getting involved in local politics. With his term on the committee coming to an end this week, we checked in with him in Raguana as he plots his next move.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How do you judge the state of our politics in San Francisco as we emerge from the pandemic? My reading of the current political winds is that I would caution moderates from reading too much and progressives from not reading enough.
Fundamentally, what it comes down to is that these issues that we’re grappling with—whether it’s housing, public safety, or small business health—they’re real, everyday issues that deserve serious discussion, not just as solutions. Program political football.
The little adage that San Francisco politics is “knife fights in the phone booth” ignores that everyone gets stabbed and you can still stab someone while you’re bleeding.
Has working in a phone booth for four years changed your perspective on what it means to be effective in San Francisco politics? I’m trying to take a stand on policy rather than personality. I went into it with that mindset and I came out with that mindset.
I see three main strata in the political sphere. You have activists trying to get something specific to happen, you have representatives primarily interested in representing voters, and then you have trustees who go into public service by exercising their judgment. It really takes someone working to bring people together who is willing to find ways to balance competing problems and work toward solutions that benefit the city as a whole.
I never thought of myself as being in that category, but this seems to be a hole in the market. I guess I gravitate naturally; I’m in a band, and there’s nothing harder than getting people around a common artistic vision.
Isn’t that a somewhat naive view of how politics works? Leaders have a responsibility to be role models of good governance.
I think it’s naive and a cop-out to say that we can discuss issues and try to reach some common ground. I don’t think common ground can always be found, and I’m not naive enough to think it’s always a requirement.
Sometimes tough decisions have to be made, and the cause needs their champions. And: this is not World War II. It wasn’t a matter of life or death, and we didn’t face mortar shells. Therefore, we should adjust our discourse to be commensurate with the actual scale we are dealing with.
This filters down to your social media persona, which is less stable than flamethrowing. It’s the result of years of managing the band’s message boards, and there are a lot of different opinions, but it’s in my interest to make everyone a fan. If people come to a well-intentioned opinion based on a sound analysis – even if I don’t agree with that analysis – I don’t see how I can stand tall and judge who someone is and how they start to think the way they do matter.
Are you planning to take a more active role in local politics? My working assumption is that I’m wrong until I’m proven right. But of course, you have to make some sort of argument to start a conversation. I think I’ve gotten enough affirmation in the process that I’m interested in tackling some of the tougher problems, some of the harder problems. We’ll see how the pieces fit together. But I’m not going to make any announcements here right now.
What do you feel you didn’t have the opportunity to accomplish on the committee? I’d really like a text-based system that notifies specific business groups if they have legislation or policy under consideration, but the pandemic has put me off trying to get this done.
Looking to the future, [Health Care Security Ordinance] Reform is urgently needed. I think the $180 million that will come directly from the general fund for small businesses will go into it is outrageous. Just look at how slow small businesses in San Francisco are recovering – we’re far behind anywhere else in the country. Frankly, this is also an indictment against me. I did everything I could, but the fact remains that small businesses are not healthy and shouldn’t be.
We continue to have a legacy of these laws that were basically written to address inequities where small businesses became collateral damage.
How have you used your position to make it easier to start a small business in this city?
We’ve been able to get a lot done during a pandemic. Probably more things have happened in the past few years than the past 15-20 years combined, like what we’ve done with small parks, simplified permitting through Prop. H, and graffiti removal programs.
But we’ve lost some battles, passed legislation, passed new reporting and monitoring requirements, etc., and managed to make things more difficult for small businesses, even in the wake of the pandemic.
When I think of the metaphor of San Francisco’s small business policy, I think of Van Ness Bus Projectdue to decades of infrastructure, it’s hard to change anything. I think this is a good analogy. There’s a lot of infrastructure out there, and when we open up the streets, it suddenly gets more complicated because we can’t tell what the shit is doing.
We had to find a way to simplify the legislation, planning codes, and what it takes to start and run a business. There is a complexity cost, and sometimes the complexity cost is higher than the cost of the problem we are trying to solve. Even if you support Rule X, Y, Z, I think, you know, deep down inside of you, there can’t be a Rule that applies to everything under the sun. We can’t have everyone have to fill out 80 forms in triplicate to open a lemonade stand.
you end your podcast There’s a segment called One Fun Idea, so what’s your favorite fun idea to improve San Francisco? In a recent episode, I talked about converting some vacant office spaces into music rehearsal rooms. At one point, we were talking about the giant slide that slides down the bay from the Embarcadero.
But in terms of what isn’t pie in the sky, I think we can really work on making the little park architecturally significant and filtered through San Francisco culture. Like in Mission, you can have an incredible little Day of the Dead park, or in SoMa it can be a leather vibe or a Burning Man theme with giant nudes made of wire. It could be something durable.
What if we could become the Parks Capital of the World? Parklets were invented here, so what if you pumped that original idea full of steroids or Molly or LSD and really took it to the next level.