A man way, way outside Beltway
The aspiring Democratic U.S. senator from South Carolina is a bumbling speaker. He’s been accused of showing porn to a teenage college student, a felony. He’s never heard of the pollution control strategy called “cap and trade.” And when asked whether he believes Palestinians should have a separate state, he looked confused, then snapped, “For what?”
Nevertheless, Alvin Greene, a 32-year-old unemployed veteran, is confident about his chances this fall against incumbent Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who has a war chest of about $3.5 million. Greene believes that he was divinely chosen and that his candidacy is “the biggest thing going on in the world, period.”
And why shouldn’t he feel that way? After scraping together a $10,400 filing fee from his military pay, Greene scored a landslide victory in the June primary against an opponent with deep roots in Charleston politics. That poor guy, a retired judge named Vic Rawl, spent $125,000, made dozens of campaign appearances and, according to his still-rattled campaign manager, paid for about 300,000 robocalls.
Greene pretty much did nothing. “I spoke to a gospel station down there in the Lowcountry in Beaufort,” he said. “But I do admit: It was a low-key campaign and that was part of my strategy in the primary.”
Many Democrats initially suspected that Greene’s candidacy was some kind of Republican dirty trick; U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, the state’s elder Democratic statesman, used the phrase “elephant dung” to describe the primary results. But investigations by party leaders and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division concluded he was legitimate, and Greene has since been accepted, if not embraced, by South Carolina Democrats as their duly but weirdly elected nominee.
“Right now, I’m voting for Al,” said attorney Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman, who, like Clyburn, first assumed Greene’s victory was a result of partisan shenanigans, but now appreciates it as a uniquely American story: “This is what would happen if Spike Lee remade a Frank Capra movie.”
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler said that she too planned to vote for Greene, but that the party would not be giving him money or other support. Greene told reporters after his primary win that he had raised a mere $1,000. Since then, he has declined to say how much money he has collected.
Theories abound as to how Greene won: that he benefitted from being placed first on the ballot with no well-known opponents, that African Americans voted for him because they assumed Greene with an “e” is a typically black spelling, and even that some voters somehow associated him with Al Green, the legendary soul singer.
Winthrop University political scientist Scott H. Huffmon doesn’t believe any single theory, but said, “When you take all the compounds that may be inert on their own and mix them into a flask, crazy explosive happens and Alvin Greene is the result.”
Sitting in the paneled den of the brick home he shares with his father a few miles outside this rural town, Greene exudes a bravado that is not entirely misplaced.
“I am obviously a phenomenon,” he said. South Carolina has never had a black senator, even during Reconstruction, and political scientists can recall no other black person to have been nominated here by a major party to the U.S. Senate. “I’ve already made history.”
It’s not entirely clear why Greene set his sights on the Senate, but he said the idea took hold while he was in the Army.
“I knew I wanted to enter politics,” Greene said. “I knew I wanted to do something better for the country.”
His 81-year-old father, James Sr., said, “I gotta keep pinching myself saying, ‘This is true, this is true.’ ”
Greene said his father was a soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an assistant principal at a local school. He also was a barber for 60 years. Greene’s mother, Claudette, was a teacher and flower shop owner who died at 53 of breast cancer when Alvin was 11. An older brother, James Jr., lives next door with his wife. A middle brother died of cystic fibrosis 14 years ago.
Greene, who has never married, said he has a girlfriend, but wouldn’t mind if the actress Raven-Symone got in touch.
He scoffs at the idea that he committed a crime in November in the computer room of a dorm at the University of South Carolina. Camille McCoy, a freshman, said he asked her to look at a pornographic image on a computer screen, and suggested they go to her room. She identified Greene from a photo lineup and he was later arrested on suspicion of disseminating obscenity, a charge that can carry a maximum five-year prison term. Next month, a grand jury will consider whether to indict him.
McCoy and her mother, Susan, have spoken publicly about the incident. They doubt Greene will be convicted. “He’s a first-time offender and she’s a ‘grown-up,’ so what’s the big deal, right?” Susan McCoy said. “But I think the man is sick. If he comes around my kid again, he’ll be sorry.”
At his bail hearing, the McCoys said, Greene told the judge he had been joking.
“I mentioned that I was kidding, yes,” Greene said. “The whole incident is just blown out of proportion.”
But he has not considered apologizing to Camille McCoy. “She may owe me an apology,” he said.
Since his victory, Greene has been visited by journalists from as far away as Poland.
In his first campaign appearance, at an event here hosted by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People on July 18 that drew a crowd of about 500, his awkwardly delivered 6 1/2-minute speech consisted of vague and crowd-pleasing sound bites about “green jobs” and “putting South Carolina and America back to work.”
He has not scheduled a second appearance, but the star-making machinery is cranking: Greene, who until last week did not own a computer, has signed with New York literary agent Caron Knauer. He is collaborating with Los Angeles filmmaker Leslie Beaumont, who is making a documentary about his unlikely political career.
And he has accepted help from a trio of volunteer consultants who read about his primary victory and were appalled at the way he has been mocked in the news media and discounted — especially by the state Democratic Party, whose ticket he now tops.
“Here is a candidate who won the primary without the help of corporations, without the help of lobbyists, without the help of fat cats and all those people who control our senators and congressmen,” said Donna Warren, a Los Angeles financial manager and political activist. “I would think the Democratic Party would recognize this and say, ‘Wow, this is wonderful,’ ” Warren said.
Fowler said she asked Greene to step down after the criminal accusation was revealed. Nonetheless, she plans to vote for him, though like many Democrats she frets that Greene’s presence on the ballot will hurt gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen, who is running against Republican Nikki Haley to replace Republican Gov. Mark Sanford. Neutral observers believe the race is competitive, though Sheheen has lagged behind Haley in polls.
Republicans, naturally, are loving it: “Greene/Sheheen” signs have sprouted around the state, and they aren’t being made by Democrats.
“Oh yes,” said Glenn McCall, a Republican county chairman from Rock Hill, “that’s part of our slogan.”
Warren recruited Harvard-educated brothers Felipe Farley, a South Carolina patent attorney, and Jonathan David Farley, a highly regarded mathematician who sometimes blogs for the Huffington Post. Felipe will help Greene with strategy and polishing his delivery; Jonathan will help Greene develop his positions.
Last week, Warren said she would manage legalistic aspects of his campaign, such as government filings. On Thursday, amid reports he’d parted ways with Warren, Greene said that he’d added a campaign manager, but that Warren and the Farleys were still advising him. Local news reports identified his manager as Suzanne Coe, a Greenville attorney, who represented Shannon Faulkner, the first female cadet at the Citadel military academy in Charleston.
“Right now, it’s a matter of limiting his exposure so he can save his strength,” Felipe Farley said. “We don’t have a complicated platform. Mr. Greene will save people’s jobs and their houses. One clear difference between him and Sen. DeMint is that Sen. DeMint voted against extension of jobless benefits.”
Despite the many interactions he’s had with the news media, Greene does not seem entirely comfortable during a two-hour interview. He speaks hesitantly, and occasionally in circles.
But he likes to remind those who doubt his intellect that he graduated from the University of South Carolina in May 2000 with a degree in political science. “I am an above-average thinker,” he said. “I have outperformed a lot of Ivy League graduates and West Point graduates.”
And when he gets revved up — say, about not getting a single promotion during his 13-year military career — the words pour forth torrentially.
Last week, the Associated Press obtained records from Greene’s military career, covering three years starting in 2002. He was considered an ineffective leader who had trouble executing his Air Force job, the AP said. He got in trouble for posting sensitive information on a military Internet server, and his lack of basic military skill led his reviewer to write that he would be “a threat to others,” the AP said.
Greene was discharged honorably, but involuntarily, in 2009. He says he was the victim of discrimination and animatedly accuses the military of promoting “terrorists,” citing the case of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is awaiting trial in the massacre at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November.
“He had bad appraisals and they didn’t kick him out! What about me? They didn’t give a damn about me!” Greene said.
Virtually no political expert expects Greene to beat DeMint in November. Only 169,572 Democrats voted in the June primary, compared with 410,808 Republicans. And even when the state’s Democratic voters were energized, as in the 2008 presidential election, the Republican nominee, John McCain, beat Barack Obama by almost 9 points.
Democrats daydream about an upset anyway.
“Maybe at the end of the day, he’s just a common-sense kind of guy,” Harpootlian said of Greene. “He has served in the military, he does have a college degree, so maybe he’s what Washington needs — you know, somebody whose last job was ‘unemployment.’ ”