Democratic mayoral challenger Selvain McQueen walked out of a candidate forum six days ago at Sim Scott Park. On Tuesday, for a planned mayoral forum in the Mississippi University for Women’s Nissan Auditorium, he didn’t even walk in.
Neither did the other candidates running in the race.
Ultimately, just an empty chair kept incumbent Robert Smith company on stage.
Smith, who is facing three challengers as the incumbent in Columbus’ mayoral election, was the only candidate to attend the Tuesday evening forum, which MUW’s College Democrats and Phi Beta Sigma fraternity hosted.
Smith largely avoided talking about his opponents during the forum, which lasted about 45 minutes, compared to the planned 90. However, a chance arose late in the forum when he was asked what separates him from the other candidates, which drew laughter from some of the roughly 100 people in the audience and a shout of “You’re here!”
Smith said he thought his leadership made the difference, but he took a moment to note that he attended the forum while his challengers were absent.
“Whatever the case may be, I could have come up with an excuse and said I was tied up or — I could have come up with any excuse,” Smith said. “But I’m here, right?”
Both Smith and McQueen, a former Columbus police chief, had originally indicated they would attend the forum, according to Phi Beta Sigma faculty adviser Dwight Doughty. However, McQueen told The Dispatch before the event that he might withdraw due to a family member’s illness.
Carl Lee, another Democratic challenger, told The Dispatch that he wasn’t aware of the MUW forum until a reporter reached him Monday. Montrell Coburn, also invited, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Last Thursday, McQueen walked out of a forum at Sim Scott Park amid his introduction because event organizers compelled him to stop criticizing the sitting mayor.
Smith, McQueen and Lee will all face off in May 2 Democratic primary. The winner will face independent Coburn in the general election in June.
Organizer: ‘We could have reached out more’
MUW College Democrats President Robert Wilson said he was pleased with the forum even if Smith was the only candidate to attend. He acknowledged organizers could have done more to try to contact the other candidates.
“I think that we could have reached out more to the candidates,” Wilson said. “We did reach out once but we didn’t make a continuous effort. I am proud of the one candidate that did come.”
The forum afforded Smith a chance to speak on a range of issues, from crime and safety to education and even his hopes for public transportation for the city — news of which he said might come as early in September. Smith reiterated, as he has at prior forums, safety and infrastructure are some of his primary focuses, along with matters such as developing a comprehensive plan for city parks.
He said the city is continuing to bolster its police force, which currently has about 55 officers. Columbus Police Department is budgeted for 67 officers, and Smith said he’s optimistic the force can get there or close to it by the end of the year.
“I’m hoping that we get to 67 before the year is over with,” he said. “If we get to 65, it would be great.”
Wilson said he was pleased overall with the forum, which at least allowed students and citizens to hear from one of the candidates who’ll be on the ballot in next week’s Democratic primary election.
“A lot of people showed up,” he said. “This was a larger number than some of the other events we have. I think it was great turnout from the student body and from the citizens.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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