ATLANTA — Is he a working-class hero, proof that anyone can make it in politics? Or did someone put Alvin Greene up to it, paying his way to sabotage the Democratic statewide primary to take pressure off South Carolina Republican incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint?
As calls for an investigation into Mr. Greene’s surprise election widened, more irregularities cropped up as details emerged about a US Senate race that, in essence, pitted a well-known candidate, Charleston County Council member Vic Rawl – who logged nearly 17,000 miles on the campaign trail – against a jobless guy who lives with his dad and who described his own campaign as “nothing fancy.” Greene came away with 59 percent of the vote, to Rawl’s 41 percent.
So far, there are far more questions than answers in the curious case of Alvin Greene, the Senate candidate with $114 in his campaign chest.
For many Democrats, Greene’s unusual election victory fits into an old narrative. In 1990, a GOP operative in South Carolina put up an unemployed shrimper to run in a Republican primary, a move that the New York Times described as an attempt to “shamelessly exploit racial differences and racism in the pursuit of victory.”
Greene’s election could also be a testament to either the beauty of amateur politics – or the fallibility of the electorate.
Greene’s spelling of his name – the “e” at the end is preferred by blacks – could have sent a message to black voters, although that didn’t seem to have mattered much as Greene took 74 percent of votes in mostly white Greenwood County and only 52 percent in mostly black Orangeburg County.
The familiar name – Al Green is of course the famous soul singer – may have played a role. Others blame the Democratic Party for not doing due diligence before taking Greene’s hand-scrawled filing fee check for $10,400 to enter the race. But South Carolina’s lengthy ballot, where Greene was listed first alphabetically, could have been the main culprit, political scientists say.
“If there are lots of offices on the ballot, voters don’t necessarily know who they are voting for,” says Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia. “In the 1960s, John Kennedy ran for office in Massachusetts, and it turned out he wasn’t that candidate. He did quite well, though.”
With conspiracy theories flying, the Sherlock Holmes game has begun into Primary Election Day 2010. There are currently three teams of election experts combing the primary results in the state’s 46 counties for clues. So far, they’ve found one unusual disparity: It turns out while he lost the poll balloting, Rawl won the absentee vote.
House Democratic whip James Clyburn of South Carolina has called for a federal investigation into the “shenanigans” and claims up to three state races may have been tampered with.
But without any hard evidence of foul play, some commentators see in Greene’s victory a postmodern “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
“If this 32-year-old man without a cell phone or computer, who has never held any political office, has no job and is ‘on the not-guilty’ side of a felony charge, can become the Democratic nominee for Senate from South Carolina, then literally anyone can,” writes Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post. “That means me, or you, or that guy on the street corner who talks to cats.”
At first flustered by a crush of press interviews and TV cameras, Greene, who lives in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach, has changed his green family reunion shirt for a suit and tie.
He prefers not to dwell on “negatives” like his arrest last year for “promoting obscenity” at the University of South Carolina, where he allegedly showed a college student obscene pictures on a laptop, in a public place. As for the $10,400 check he filed with the Democratic party, Greene says he saved for two years to build up the fund.
Greene sees himself as a populist, not a plant. Next up: He wants to debate DeMint.
“I mean, that was one of the things I ran into when I decided to run. They were like, ‘You don’t have a hundred million dollars. How are you gonna win? How do you expect to do anything if you don’t have a hundred million dollars? What you gonna do?’ Greene tells The Root website in an interview titled “Is Alvin Greene the Real Joe the Plumber?” “But in the end, it’s not about money, it’s the votes that count. That’s what everyone has to remember.”
Former state Democratic party leader Dick Harpootlian, however, says Rawl trailed DeMint by just 43 to 50 percent in polls and that “Republicans feared DeMint’s seat was not, in fact, secure and a progressive insurgency could put Rawl ahead of him in November,” writes blogger Riga Listin over at Café Sentido.
DeMint has flatly denied any involvement with Greene’s candidacy. “It’s ridiculous even to suggest that,” DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton tells David Weigel of the Washington Post.
So how did Greene do it?
In an interview with Fox News, he explained, “I had friends and their friends help. I mean, I don’t want to talk about the campaign. We get caught up in the campaign – ‘How he won?’ – whatever. I worked hard.”