How a planned Democratic forum quietly fell apart after Jim Hood balked

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Mississippi Today

Velesha P. Williams, Robert Shuler Smith and Jim Hood

Jacquie Amos has heard from many Democratic voters the past few weeks about whether the Democrats running for governor planned to share the stage and talk about their platforms.

As field director for the Mississippi Democratic Party and chairwoman of the Hinds County Democratic Party, Amos regularly organizes events and runs the local chapter of the party in the county with the most Democratic voters — and citizens — in the state.

“If we’re going to force political change at the state level, we have to get the best messages to the voters so they can make the right decision,” Amos said. “I don’t think any candidate should say they’re a shoo-in. If you give voters clarity, something concrete — if we can do that, then I think we’ve done our job.”

So on July 8, Amos got to work.

She called Dr. Elayne Hayes-Anthony, chair of the journalism department at Jackson State University, who jumped at the chance of broadcasting a forum with the top three Democratic contenders for governor — Attorney General Jim Hood, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith and Velesha P. Williams — on WJSU, the university’s public television station.

With eight Democrats running for the nomination, Amos and Anthony agreed to invite the three candidates who have raised the most money this year and had the most social media followers.

There would be no debate or discussion between candidates, the organizers decided. Instead, each candidate would stand together in front of cameras and answer five questions about key issues facing the state.

They decided to tape the forum with no live audience at 10 a.m. on July 17, and the forum would air on WJSU on July 19 and seven more times before the August 6 primary.

That same day, July 8, Amos called all three campaigns and extended the invitation. Shuler Smith and Williams quickly agreed, Amos and their campaigns told Mississippi Today.

“I’ve been calling for a debate for months now, so I was willing to go anywhere at any time and cancel whatever I had planned to make it happen,” Williams said.

Hood’s campaign cited a scheduling conflict on July 17, Amos said, but offered to record their answers at the WJSU studios at an earlier time without the other candidates present.

“They asked if he could be taped before he left to go out of town, but WJSU wanted all of them, especially since the attorney general is slated as the front-runner,” Amos said. “It would obviously make sense if he could be there. They didn’t want to record him separately and give him any advantage. So they cancelled it.”

She continued: “(The Hood campaign) is going to tell you that there was a scheduling conflict, but I don’t know. I think it would’ve helped all of them to do this. I think this would’ve been a great public service. I’m just disappointed.”

When reached for comment, a Hood campaign official said: “We don’t have anything to add to the information that you already have on why Attorney General Hood wasn’t able to attend.”

On Monday, Hood’s opponents slammed the attorney general for not finding a way to make the forum work.

“An elected attorney, I can’t recall running away from an argument — even when my political and professional ‘prestige’ seemed to be on the line,” Shuler Smith said in a statement. “One Mississippi needs a strong willed leader who understands that being for the people requires a heart of perseverance not privilege.”

“I think for anyone to assume he will receive the Democratic nomination for governor without sharing a stage with your opponents is offensive,” Williams said. “If you aren’t willing to talk about your ideas and your candidacy with the public, why should the public trust you?”

All three Republican candidates for governor will participate in a televised debate on July 23. WJTV in Jackson will host the debate, and it will be broadcast live in every TV market in the state.

No such event has been planned for the Democratic candidates. When reached by phone on Monday, Amos’ colleague Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak said the state party had nothing to do with the WJSU forum that Amos tried to plan, saying: “There has been absolutely no effort on behalf of the Mississippi Democratic Party to have a debate between Democrats at the local or state level.”

When asked if he thought Democratic candidates should follow the Republicans’ lead and have an honest exchange of ideas in a debate setting, Moak laughed.

“I have absolutely no problem at all with Republicans having all the debates they want,” Moak said. “We’re just not going to do that on our side. It’s not something we would even consider.”

Editor’s note: After this story published, the Hood campaign told Mississippi Today in a statement: “We were not offered any alternative dates, were never contacted by WJSU and were advised that only three of the eight (D)emocratic candidates were invited.” The campaign also objected to the format and several individuals who would be involved with the event.