Accusations of bullying: Kennesaw special election gets heated

Wildmans Civil War shop

By Rebecca Gaunt

Ben Day, a Kennesaw City Council Post 5 special election candidate and Episcopal priest, has leveled criticism on his campaign website at two citizens who have publicly opposed Wildman’s Civil War Main Street store, saying that they support one of his opponents and accusing them of bullying the operator of the shop.

On his official website, he accused former city council member Cris Eaton Welsh and Kennesaw resident Mary Miller of using bullying tactics to get rid of the store in service of their preferred candidate Anthony Gutierrez.

However, Day’s comments about the controversial store and its contents are also critical.

“Wildman’s is an embarrassment to our community, perpetuating racism and xenophobia, which are moral evils that must be stopped through legal means,” he wrote as part of his campaign platform.

“The tactics employed by my fellow candidate, Anthony, and his backers, Cris Eaton Welch [sic] and Mary Miller, to bully and harass a licensed and compliant business are morally indefensible. Using government pressure to strongarm businesses is unacceptable and shameful,” he wrote.

Asked if he had seen Day’s comments, Gutierrez told the Courier, “Yes I have. I am choosing to ignore the baseless accusations and childish behavior and will continue to run a clean issue based campaign. I’m more upset about the personal attack on voters.”

There is no mention of the store on Gutierrez’s website, though he does call for more transparency and fairness when enforcing ordinances on businesses.

Both Welsh and Miller have spoken on multiple occasions in opposition to the shop during public comment at meetings. 

Welsh’s father, James “Doc” Eaton, resigned from his City Council post in 2022, when the city issued current store operator, Marjorie Lyon, a new business permit. Lyon previously worked with Dent Myers, who had owned and run the shop since 1971. He died in January 2022.

Miller seemed baffled by Day’s comments, telling the Courier she hasn’t spoken about Wildman’s at a City Council meeting since October 2022, though she has addressed other matters. [Editors note: We originally wrote that she hadn’t spoken at a meeting. She contacted us to clarify that she had spoken, just not on that topic]

“I basically said the same kind of things he’s saying. I’ve never called out [Marjorie] personally,” she said, adding that she’s never seen Day at a meeting.

“To be called a bully as a citizen by a political candidate who spent a good amount of effort explaining how tied in he is with the police department is a bit intimidating. Almost like I’m being … bullied,” she said. 

Day has served as the Kennesaw Police Department chaplain since 2018.

Miller said that in 2022, she was one of the citizens who tried to get the store designated as a blight.

“The city just said no about that,” she told the Courier. That was the last time she made a code enforcement complaint.

The city has been accused of not treating all downtown businesses equally and overlooking code violations on behalf of Wildman’s. City staff have continually denied those accusations.

Welsh told the Courier she has never even spoken to Day.

“I am concerned that as a man of the cloth, he is making judgements based on second hand knowledge as I have never had a conversation with him or ever met him,” she said. “While he knows there is a problem, he is not willing to do anything of substance to address the issue…All I have ever done is simply ask our government to be accountable and consistent and address true issues.”

On his website, Day continued, “There are legal avenues to address concerns about Wildman’s. One approach is to enforce and possibly tighten the existing flag ordinance. Currently, Marjorie, the owner, is violating the ordinance by displaying eight flags instead of the permitted three. Perhaps we should consider a zero-flag ordinance to address this issue effectively.

“If elected, I will extend an invitation to Marjorie to collaborate on setting clear standards to eradicate the racist practices inherited and perpetuated by Wildman’s. I urge my opponents to join me in committing to end bullying tactics and instead engage in constructive dialogue to foster positive change in our community. Let’s stop the harassment and start making proactive efforts towards a better future for all.”

With Wildman’s once again an issue at the center of an election cycle, Lyon didn’t seem inclined to accept Day’s offer to join forces when asked for comment.

“Does Wildman’s Shop and its management believe they are superior to anyone? Nope – that is not our place to judge, just read your Bible and you will clearly see that…We can absolutely agree on one thing – let’s stop the hate and harassment. Ben Day, you might want to start with yourself and your platform before you take on the town,” Lyon said.

She agreed with his point that there should be connectivity between local government and small business, but questioned his zero flag proposal.

“As for the flags – we comply with every ordinance that applies to us on the matter. But a zero flag policy? Do you really want to limit the ability for Kennesaw residents and businesses to fly, say, the American Flag? The Georgia State Flag? That is looking like a direct violation of 1st Amendment rights,” she continued.

The Courier reached out to Day for comment about his website.

“Let me first state unequivocally for the record that I think Wildman’s is an embarrassment to our community, and I would be in support of any legal and morally defensible process to rid its stain on our community,” he wrote in a lengthy email.

“What is neither legal nor morally defensible are the schoolyard bullying tactics employed by Cris Eaton Welch [sic] and the pawns she’s recruited in her campaign to harass and malign Wildman’s current proprietor, Marjorie Lyons [sic]. She claimed on the record that she was “done with Kennesaw” at a June 2022 city council meeting that also featured the theatrical resignation of her father from the city council because Kennesaw followed the law and not his personal moral conscience in renewing the business license for Wildman’s. Yet, Cris still owns a building in downtown and continues to agitate and manipulate the public through proxies after publicly embarrassing herself and her family— most recently, the recruitment of failed council candidate Anthony Gutierrez to run in the Post 5 special elections, and through her chief proxy and longtime friend Mary Miller.”

Both Miller and Welsh told the Courier that the June 2022 City Council meeting was the first time the two met.

In his email, Day said he chose to name Miller, even though she is a private citizen, after she came to his house while canvassing for Gutierrez, at which time he claims she interrogated him about his opinions on Wildman’s.

Day accused Gutierrez of being involved in a Reddit campaign to deluge the city with mass code enforcement complaints about the store. [Editor’s note: The Courier originally wrote that Day accused “all three.” Day contacted us to state that his comment on the Reddit campaign only applied to Gutierrez]

He also accused Welsh of having a five-year plan to control enough votes on the council to close the store using methods that “break the law and arbitrarily and capriciously close a business without just regulatory cause.”

He called Councilwoman Madelyn Orochena’s election last year the first step in that campaign and claimed Gutierrez would be the second.

Orochena declined to comment on the matter.

Asked if he had concerns about calling out a private citizen on his website, Day responded, “I do. Had Mary not personally come to my house and interrogated me on behalf of Anthony’s campaign, I would have gladly left her off. She inserted herself into this political race by coming to my house and campaigning for Anthony. She forfeits her right to privacy when she makes overt political statements on behalf of a fellow candidate in order to advance their agenda of bullying.” 

Miller confirmed to the Courier that she did knock on Day’s door while canvassing to say hello.

“For goodness’ sake, he lives on my street! His wife is a friend of an old friend of mine. I was curious about his perspective and so I asked,” she said.

Miller called his characterization of her as a pawn or proxy of Welsh patronizing.

“Almost all of his statements are untrue which I find disturbing. He’s a candidate for public office and he thinks it’s OK to attack citizens with theories created by back office gossip,” she said.

State Rep. Lisa Campbell (D-Kennesaw, Acworth) weighed in on Day’s campaign.

“Singling out private citizens by name, who are not running for office, says your campaign pitch lacks decorum and dignity. These ad hominem arguments speak volumes about one’s leadership ability and respect for constituents. I urge him to remove the names of our neighbors from his website and instead run on his own merits,” she said.

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.