Last Call

A small-town mayor with big-city ambitions sets off a major brouhaha in Harris

After replacing the roof and repairing the smoke damage, Kabanuk went about adding a touch of class to the interior. He replaced the tired wood paneling with knotty pine and stocked the jukebox with Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and Garth Brooks. He even helped come up with a new name befitting the desired ambience: Big Daddy's Bar & Grill.

"He made it beautiful inside," recalls Kim Hugger, a friend of Kabanuk's. "Before, it was really dark and dingy. He made it someplace you could go have a sandwich with your kids."

Kabanuk had the bar up and running by early 2005. That June, he went to a City Council meeting to renew the liquor license. Expecting a routine hearing, Kabanuk instead watched as the new mayor and his allies on the council threatened to shut down Heart Breakers, a strip club across the street from his bar.

Ken Kabanuk opened a bar in town, but soon ran afoul of the mayor
Jonathan Kaminsky
Ken Kabanuk opened a bar in town, but soon ran afoul of the mayor

The mayor turned the floor over to Henry Gregoire, a born-again Christian who nursed a barely concealed rage. A week earlier, Gregoire said, he'd driven past Heart Breakers late at night and seen an unruly mob surrounding a man on the ground getting pummeled by the club's bouncers. "They were wearing G-strings," Gregoire recalled. "And waitresses were going around serving drinks."

A police report filed in connection with the incident paints a different picture. According to the cops, the crowd had gathered to see a man who'd been sucker-punched in the abdomen by an unidentified assailant. The victim refused medical treatment, didn't want to pursue a criminal case, and, as the officer wrote, "merely wished to go home." The report makes no mention of drinks served outside, nor of violent, G-string-wearing bouncers.

Dan Walton, a burly, plainspoken taxidermist who'd served nearly a decade on the council, wasn't buying Gregoire's story. "You're a damned liar," Walton thundered. "I'm calling your bluff."

But the mayor and his council allies agreed that the incident was symptomatic of a serious problem, which they said included beer bottles and spent condoms strewn across the sidewalk, as well as the regular use of neighbors' lawns as urinals. They voted to restrict Heart Breakers' liquor license, the equivalent of putting it on probation.

Kabanuk took the message personally: The mayor didn't like bars, he reasoned, and with only two of them in town, his would be next on the hit list.

On a crisp Sunday three months later, Kabanuk put on a daylong fundraiser at his bar for a young girl whose face was horribly disfigured after she was mauled by a pit bull. A couple hundred people spent the day drinking cheap beer, eating burgers and brats, and listening to a country band cover Roy Orbison and Toby Keith.

A few days after the event, a bartender at Big Daddy's got a call from Doug Chaffee, a councilman who'd ridden Smisson's anti-tax coattails to power. Chaffee said he had credible information that people at the event were snorting lines of cocaine off the bar.

Kabanuk showed up at the next council meeting to confront the charges. Full of nerves and anger, Kabanuk accused Chaffee of wrecking his good name. "You slandered our business and I would like to know what information you have," he seethed.

Chaffee didn't back down. Saying he'd been tipped off by two people who were at the benefit, he denied starting any rumors. "I didn't spread it all over," the councilman said defensively. "I called you."

Chaffee declined to comment on his allegations to City Pages, but Walton, who at the time lived next door to Big Daddy's, says it was at best a silly misunderstanding. "My three-year-old had some Sweet Tarts candies," he recalls. "I crushed them against the bar with a beer bottle so I wouldn't have to worry about him choking."

The new regime's attitude toward the bars agitated Walton, but it was the mayor's plan for a new sewage plant that had really riled him. Before Smisson's arrival, the town was in talks to hook up its antiquated sewer system to North Branch, its larger neighbor to the south. Instead, shortly after taking office, Smisson and his council allies announced that Harris would build its own treatment plant. While more expensive—it would cost at least $5 million—the plant would allow the town to grow more quickly.

To Walton, abandoning the pipeline to North Branch was sheer folly. "The moron mayor pissed an opportunity down the tubes," he says. Fed up, he tendered his resignation from the council in a letter published in the local newspaper. "You need to be involved," the letter admonished Harris residents. "Otherwise, be happy with what three individuals may decide for you, and be prepared to pay for it."

WALTON'S PARTING SHOT became a rallying cry. In spring 2006, Kabanuk held a meeting above his bar to discuss how to take back control of the town. A mustachioed firebrand named Marcus Shelander took the lead. "We need to get these guys out of office," said Shelander, one of Smisson's two opponents in the previous mayoral race.

Before the meeting could go any further, Steven Thorp, the town's imposing part-time building inspector, burst through the door, red-faced and barking orders.

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