An otherwise affable candidate forum grew testy near the end as two mayoral candidates traded barbs with their closing remarks.
Former Columbus police chief Selvain McQueen, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Robert Smith in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, repeatedly took aim at Smith’s saying he planned to address continuing issues, such as parks and infrastructure. McQueen also insisted crime has never been higher in Columbus, city schools are failing and the city needs to do more — specifically through working with the Golden Triangle Development LINK — to attract high-paying jobs.
“There should’ve been some type of plan prior to now — prior to election time,” McQueen said. “‘I’m going to do. I’m going to do.’ And that’s what you keep hearing–‘I’m going to do.'”
Smith, in his closing remarks, hit back. He said, in reference to an April 20 candidate forum that McQueen left after being told he couldn’t attack the mayor during his opening statements, that he wouldn’t “walk out” on voters.
Smith also pointed to five unsolved murders from the late 1990s, when McQueen was a detective with CPD, and a string of murders in 2011 when McQueen was serving as interim police chief.
“Don’t sit here and listen to these promises — ‘I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that,'” Smith said. “You didn’t do this prior to, when you were the chief. When there was a problem you ran to someone else. So how are you gonna do so much as a leader and as the mayor?”
McQueen, speaking to The Dispatch after Saturday’s forum, defended himself.
“The crime rate has never been lower in Columbus than when I was police chief,” he said. “If you can find a chief that had a lower crime rate than when I was chief, I’ll leave town.”
Saturday’s forum — the Mad Hatter Tea Derby hosted by the Memphistown Community Builders and local Federation Democratic Women at the R.E. Hunt Museum and Cultural Center –included a meet-and-greet for an hour, followed by a near 90-minute candidate forum.
The forum included candidates from every race except the Ward 6 race between incumbent Republican Bill Gavin and Democrat challengers Whirllie Byrd and Andre Roberts.
Montrell Coburn, an independent running for mayor in the June general election, attended Saturday’s event. Carl Lee, the third Democratic candidate, did not attend.
Discussion touched on a range of issues, including the city’s recreation–both how it’s preparing for its split from Lowndes County and their cooperative management of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreational Authority and how to create better options for youth form struggling families.
Smith said the city is working to develop a comprehensive plan in the wake of the pending split, which is set for Oct. 1.
McQueen criticized the mayor for saying the city was “about to” craft a plan, and accused him of bullying the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box pushed back against that accusation.
“I think if there was any bullying going on, it was from the other side,” Box said. “We did not leave the county. The county left us. We tried, very hard, to correct that situation by meeting with them, but each time we met with them it was obvious that their mind was made up to pull out, and they did.”
Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner, who described himself as the “black version of Uncle Bunky” — a reference to the longtime local children’s show host who passed away in 2015 — said improving recreation relies on Columbus’ citizens as much as it does the government.
“If you really are interested in what these children need, you will start trying to do something yourself,” he said. “That’s what I have done and that’s what I will continue to do.”
At another point, candidates talked about the successes and challenges that Columbus has faced over the past four years. Many agreed the work the city has done to attract improvement projects funded with state money, such as the city hall renovation or amphitheater, were successes. On challenges, many of the candidates agreed Columbus needs to address problems with crime and infrastructure, along with its negative image.
Troy Miller, a Democrat running against incumbent Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens and fellow challenger Eric Thomas in Tuesday’s primary, said expanding economic opportunities in Columbus, especially as the city faces losing retail stores such as JCPenney and RadioShack, will be a challenge.
“The economy is tied up into so much that goes on in our city,” Miller said. “When people are working, people generally obey the law. When they can afford to feed their families, have decent housing, have a decent quality of life, crime generally goes down.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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