PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Gov. Dan McKee has unexpectedly pulled out of the first in-person gubernatorial forum of this year’s election cycle.

McKee was scheduled to join five of his opponents on stage next Thursday at a luncheon meeting of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the influential business-backed think tank. But RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase said his group has now been informed McKee will no longer attend.

“We were informed that the governor is not doing candidate events until the field is set,” DiBiase told 12 News in an email. (The filing deadline for candidates is the last week of June.)

McKee’s office first confirmed his participation in the forum two months ago, on Feb. 24, and had later done so again, according to DiBiase, who added that his group had “communicated event details.”

“While we are disappointed, we are looking forward to an event that will help inform the voters ahead of the important choice they have to make,” he said.

The RIPEC event would have been the first time McKee appeared jointly with the candidates vying to replace him.

Brexton Isaacs, McKee’s campaign manager, confirmed the change of plans in an email.

“As RIPEC said, we notified them last week that the governor will begin participating in debates when the candidate declaration period is complete and the field is set,” Isaacs said. He did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about the governor’s schedule next week.

All four of McKee’s Democratic primary rivals are still slated to appear at the RIPEC forum: Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, former Secretary of State Matt Brown, and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz. Republican Ashley Kalus, who kicked off her campaign in March, has also been added to the event.

12 News political reporter Steph Machado is moderating the forum.

No public polling has been conducted in the race for governor so far, but a quarterly survey released Thursday by the website Morning Consult showed McKee’s job approval rating had slipped to 42%.

The governor’s rivals criticized him for refusing to join them on stage.

“It’s no surprise Governor McKee is not showing up, he doesn’t want to talk about how unpopular he is,” Kalus said in a statement. “Rhode Islanders need someone who is going to fight – not flee.”

Dana Walton, a spokesperson for Gorbea, tied McKee’s decision to the recently revealed FBI investigation into the controversial ILO group contract. “With his administration facing a federal investigation for cronyism, it is not a mystery as to why the governor is bailing on a longstanding forum,” she said.

“He is now the third most unpopular governor in the country because he is letting Rhode Island down,” Walton said. “Nellie will be a governor who does the work, restores competence, and always tells Rhode Islanders the truth.”

Foulkes added: “Voters deserve to hear every candidate’s vision for how they plan to move Rhode Island forward. Leadership is about answering tough questions.”

McKee previously missed the first forum for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, a virtual event hosted by the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus back in February. He was in Florida at the time for a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook