Sharky Laguana used to be one of the scores of San Franciscans who couldn’t name his district supervisor. During the pandemic, however, he became a household name in local political circles for his outspoken advocacy for small business—and plenty of other issues—as president of the Small Business Commission.
A founding member of indie rock band Creeper Lagoon who spent time sleeping on the streets after arriving in San Francisco as a teenager, Laguana’s foray into local politics came after he started his Bandago van rental company. As his tenure on the commission came to a close this week, we checked in with Laguana as he charts his next act.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How would you judge where we’re at politically in San Francisco as we move out of the pandemic?
Sharky Laguana: My reading on the current political winds is that I would caution moderates against reading too much and progressives into not reading enough.
Fundamentally, what it comes down to are these issues we are struggling with—whether it is housing, public safety or small business health—they are real day-to-day problems, and they deserve serious conversation, not just using these issues as a political football.
The little aphorism that San Francisco politics is a “knife fight in a phone booth” leaves out that everyone gets stabbed and you can still stab someone else while you’re bleeding out.
Has four years of being in the phone booth changed your opinion on what it means to be effective in San Francisco politics?
I’ve tried to make my stances about policy, not personality. I went into it with that mindset, and I’m coming out of it with that mindset.
I see three main classes in the political spheres. You have activists who are trying to make something specific happen, you have representatives mainly interested in representing the constituents and then you have trustees who found their way into public service by virtue of exercising judgment. There does need to be somebody working on bringing people together, who is willing to find ways to balance competing concerns and to work toward solutions that help the city as a whole.
I never thought of myself as being somebody in that category, but that seemed to be a hole in the market. I think I was naturally inclined; I was in a band, and nothing is more difficult than getting people aligned around a common artistic vision.
Isn’t that a somewhat naive view on how politics works?
The burden falls on leaders to be role models for what good governance looks like.
I think it’s a copout to say that the idea of talking about issues and trying to find common ground is naive. I don’t think common ground will always be found, and I'm not naive to think it's always a requirement.
Sometimes hard decisions have to be made, and causes need their champions. But also: This isn't World War II. It's not life-and-death, and we’re not facing down a mortar round. So we should temper our discourse and make it commensurate with the actual scale of what we're dealing with.
That filters through to your social media persona, which is more wonky than flamethrowing.
That comes from many years of managing my band’s message board, which had a lot of different opinions, but where it was in my interest to have everybody remain a fan. If people come to a good-faith opinion based on a reasoned analysis—even if I disagree with the analysis—I don't see where I can stand on a horse high enough to be to judge somebody for who they are, and how they came to think about things in the way that they did.
Do you plan on taking a more active role in local politics?
My working assumption is I'm wrong until I'm proven right. But of course, you’ve got to put out some sort of thesis to get the conversation started. I think I got enough affirmation in my experience with that process that I am interested in tackling some tougher issues, some harder problems. We'll see how the pieces fall together. But I'm not going to make any announcements right here, right now.
What do you feel you didn’t have a chance to achieve at the commission?
I really wanted a text-based system that would notify specific business groups if they had legislation or policies being considered, but the pandemic kind of knocked me off my quest to get that done.
Going forward, the [Health Care Security Ordinance] is in desperate need of reform. I think it's outrageous that $180 million is going to be going into the general fund that came straight out of small businesses. Look at how slowly small business in San Francisco has come back—we're way behind anywhere else in the country. Frankly, that's an indictment on me as well. I did everything I possibly could, but the fact remains small business is not healthy and it's not where it should be.
We continue to have this legacy of laws that were basically created to address inequities where small businesses became collateral damage.
How did you use your position to make it easier to be a small business in the city?
During the pandemic, we were able to get a lot done. There’s probably more that’s happened over the last couple years than the previous 15-20 years combined, like what we did with parklets, streamlining permitting through Prop. H, and the graffiti abatement program.
But we lost some battles, legislation was passed that succeeded in making things a little bit harder for small business, even post-pandemic, through new reporting and monitoring requirements and things like that.
When I think about a metaphor for small business policy in San Francisco I think about the Van Ness bus project, where it was difficult to change anything because of decades of infrastructure.
I think it's a great analogy. There's a lot of infrastructure under there, and when we opened up the streets, it suddenly became a lot more complicated because we couldn't tell what any of that shit was doing.
We have to find a way to streamline legislation, the planning code and what it takes to open and operate a business. There is a complexity cost, and sometimes the complexity cost is higher than the cost of the ill that we were trying to solve for. Even if you're for X, Y, Z ordinance I think, you know, deep down in your gut, there can't be an ordinance for every last thing under the sun. We can't burden everybody with having to fill out 80 forms in triplicate just to be able to open a lemonade stand.
You end your podcast with a segment called One Fun Idea, so what’s your favorite fun idea to improve San Francisco?
On a recent episode, I was talking about converting some of this vacant office space into music rehearsal studios. At one point, we were talking about a giant slide from the Embarcadero into the bay.
But in terms of what’s less pie-in-the-sky, I’m thinking we could really make an effort to make parklets architecturally significant, filtered through San Francisco culture. Like in the Mission, you could have incredible Day of the Dead parklets, or in SoMa, it could be a leather vibe or a Burning Man theme with giant naked ladies made out of wire. This could be something that could be built to last.
What if we could become the parklet capital of the world? Parklets were invented here, so what if you pump that original idea full of steroids or molly or LSD and really take it to the next level?
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]