Last Call

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

"Everybody has to leave," Thorp shouted, adding that the upstairs of the building wasn't licensed for public use and that he would arrest anyone who didn't obey.

Not wanting to wind up in jail, the group grudgingly filed out of the bar. "We didn't quite understand why he could do that," said Lisa Jorgenson, a paralegal who attended the meeting with her husband. "We're law-abiding citizens, and this is the United States of America."

But the meetings continued, albeit not at Big Daddy's. By early September, the group had settled on a candidate to take on Smisson: Larry Nelson, a graduate of Mankato State and a seasoned grant writer for the Department of Agriculture. Kabanuk was certain the bespectacled, mild-mannered man had the right stuff to beat the mayor.

Nick Vlcek
"Harris is joining the 21st century," says Mayor Rick Smisson
Jonathan Kaminsky
"Harris is joining the 21st century," says Mayor Rick Smisson

But another of the mayor's foes, unaware of Nelson's candidacy, decided at the last minute to enter the race. Marv Stai's reasons for running were personal. A beefy recovering alcoholic in his mid-40s, he'd bought his five acres in Harris a decade ago to get himself and his family away from the bad influences and inconveniences of life in St. Paul. That, and to enjoy his primary passion: riding four-wheelers.

Shortly after moving to Harris, Stai transformed his backyard into a motocross track, a lunar-looking obstacle course full of hairpin turns and 10-foot jumps. Eager to share his pastime, he opened it up, free of charge, to anyone who wanted to ride.

But Stai's neighbors weren't exactly thrilled with the incessant noise and dust. They found a sympathetic ear in Mayor Smisson, who forced Stai to dismantle his favorite jump and water down the course to keep down the dust. As a complete shutdown loomed, Stai decided to take matters into his own hands.

"That's the problem with this friggin' town," he says. "Everybody complains, but nobody wants to step in and be the muscle."

In early September 2006, he filed papers to run for mayor, but doubts quickly crept in. An auto parts salesman with limited education, he worried that he wasn't up for the challenge. Then, just two days before the deadline to withdraw from the race, Stai got a late-morning visit from Kabanuk and Shelander.

"Are you running for mayor?" Shelander asked.

"I signed up," Stai said. "But I'm thinking of getting out."

Sensing an opening, the two men gave Stai their pitch: They were supporting Nelson. He was an educated, qualified candidate who would give Smisson a real run for his money. And if elected, Nelson would have better things to do than nitpick over Stai's backyard. But, Shelander added, "A three-way race hurts him."

Stai asked the men for a few minutes to think it over. When they came back, he told them he'd made up his mind. "I'm dropping out, and I'll support Larry Nelson," he told his visitors.

Shelander told Stai he should think about applying for the planning commission or the park board, both of which are appointed by the council. "I'm sure Larry and the council would consider you," he said.

Kabanuk was pleased. "But I feel bad for all the time and money you've put into this," he told Stai. As a consolation, Kabanuk told Stai he'd help defray Stai's campaign costs. A few hours later, Stai's roommate collected an envelope with $400 from Big Daddy's. Within two days, Stai officially dropped out of the race.

"I was telling everyone about it," Stai says. "I even told my mail lady. But then she mixed the whole thing up."

A WEEK LATER, Mayor Smisson got a phone call from Susan Morgan, the town's mail carrier, according to a statement he later gave to the state's Office of Administrative Hearings.

"If someone convinces someone with the promise of a future political appointment and favorable zoning, along with a payment of cash, to drop out of a race for mayor, would that be illegal?" she asked, according to Smisson.

"Yes!" Smisson said emphatically.

Following up on this promising lead, he dispatched Kurt Naumann, his friend and campaign manager, to Stai's house.

Naumann, a heavy-set blond, runs a small farm outside of Harris. He is also an aspiring real-estate developer, with a 17-acre plot surrounded by farmland and open prairie half a mile outside of town.

Shortly after becoming mayor, Smisson helped Naumann get his land rezoned for high-density housing. But without the sewer plant hooking up to his property—without Smisson elected to another term—Naumann would likely be unable to build the high-profit, high-density housing he'd planned. (Naumann declined an interview request.)

When he showed up at Stai's house, Naumann was coy. "My son wants to ride on your track," he said, his voice friendly and warm.

"No problem," Stai responded, and fetched the legal waiver he made all riders sign.

But then Naumann took the conversation in a different direction. "Actually," Naumann said, his voice cooling, "I'm here for two reasons. I also need you to sign a statement."

This statement, he explained, was an admission that Stai had accepted a bribe to quit the mayoral race. Naumann then pulled out a "penalty matrix"—a list of possible punishments for Stai's alleged crime. If Stai confessed, Naumann said, he'd do what he could to keep Stai out of jail.

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