• Politics

At Home with South Carolina’s Alvin Greene

7 minute read
Michael Scherer / Manning, S.C.

Alvin Greene may be the only Democratic nominee in U.S. Senate election history to walk to his father’s kitchen every time his telephone rings. And it rings every five minutes or so — supporters he’ll never meet, television and radio bookers hoping to juice ratings and reporters trying to figure out what Greene means for South Carolina and America’s troubled democracy. “I don’t have caller ID,” Greene tells a caller. He also doesn’t own a cell phone or a computer.

As recently as Memorial Day, Alvin Greene was an unemployed 32-year-old, 13-year military veteran who had been involuntarily discharged from both the Army and the Air Force and was facing an obscenity charge for allegedly showing a teenage stranger online pornography in a college campus computer lab (Greene has denied comment, but he is fighting the charge). What he became after winning 59% of the vote in the June 8 Democratic primary is now in dispute. To Representative Jim Clyburn, the state’s most powerful Democrat, Greene is a pod person of unknown origin — “someone’s plant.” To his older brother James Jr., Greene is nothing more than a loner with a dream of making good — “like someone coming up saying, ‘I’m going to fly to the moon.’ ” To Vic Rawl, his well-funded opponent, Greene is the possible beneficiary of a historic voter-machine malfunction or, worse, a stolen election.

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Greene maintains that the answer is much simpler. “I am the best candidate for the United States Senate in South Carolina,” he says, hitting his talking points, as he is apt to do. “And I am also the best person to be TIME magazine’s Man of the Year.” He is speaking now, between trips to the kitchen, in the living room, while his 81-year-old father James Sr., barefoot under a flannel blanket, dozes on the couch. Suddenly the television flashes to Greene’s face, with a Fox News announcer teasing an upcoming segment about the newbie’s “mental state.” This gets to Greene, who is tired of being treated by the press like a carnival act. “What about everyone else’s mental state?” he asks, before breaking into a chuckle. “It seems like things don’t apply to me. I’m the nominee, and 60% isn’t 60% anymore.”

Greene’s election has become the whodunit of the political year, with a formal protest filed with the state Democratic Party, a legal challenge before the Federal Election Commission and endless local chatter about how a man with no real campaign, who gets information “mainly” from television, defeated the party-endorsed standard bearer, a retired judge who had printed 10,000 bumper stickers, logged 17,000 miles crisscrossing the state in his hatchback and paid for 220,000 autodial phone calls before election day.

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While Greene’s jury-rigged headquarters sits on 15 acres that his grandfather once farmed, the Rawl headquarters in Charleston, 80 miles to the south, consists of three rooms in an office park that look every bit like those of a winning campaign. At its peak, the Rawl operation employed about a dozen people, and even a week after losing, the place is humming, with three 20-something staff members tapping away on laptops beside a fresh pot of coffee. One wall is plastered with an oversize calendar showing planned campaign events through August, and on another wall hangs a motivational maxim: “What Have You Done for the Win Today?” Campaign manager Walter Ludwig, a silver-haired Beltway pro, is still working through what happened. “I thought over and over again whether I should have done something different,” he says. “Maybe yes, maybe no, but the not knowing is really tough.”

In trying to explain the unexpected, Ludwig and Rawl have settled on suspicion. They know what they did to win the primary — Rawl even threw out the first pitch at a minor league game in Myrtle Beach. And they know that Greene never really left his living room. So they have begun to build a case that the state’s voting machines — electronic boxes without a paper trail — may be at fault. They have been collecting anecdotal reports of machine malfunction and casing academia for analyses of the results that suggest statistical improbability. Elsewhere in the state, Democratic and Republican consultants have, without evidence, alleged dirty tricks, pointing to the sordid 1990 incident when Republicans urged a black man onto the ticket to boost white turnout.

A third explanation now seems the most likely: Greene got lucky. His name appeared first on the ballot and may have had a more dulcet-sounding tone to it, and there is little evidence that anyone knew much about either candidate before the election. In one poll a few weeks before the election, only 4% of state Democrats had a favorable opinion of Rawl, in part because so few knew who he was.”I talked to a lot of people, and a lot of people voted for him,” Democratic state representative Todd Rutherford told MSNBC. “They can’t tell me why. They just said that hey, they saw the name and they pushed the button.”

Greene says he paid the $10,400 filing fee with his Army savings and that he never had professional help from outside. He wants to get on with building a campaign, based around three issues: jobs, education and “justice in the judicial system.” But there are signs that he has no idea how to proceed. He says he is still waiting for the state party to provide him with the money and infrastructure to launch a campaign, but the state chair, Carol Fowler, says she will not back someone who is facing charges “for something truly distasteful.” When first asked if he would grant an interview with TIME, Greene responded by asking a question of his own: “Does the candidate get paid?”

Throughout all the phone calls, Greene keeps trying to refocus the conversation on what he feels is important, his message and his plans for an hour-long televised debate with Republican incumbent Jim DeMint in September. He has plans, he says, for more funding to widen roads and create jobs, more money to train teachers and reforms that would curtail long jail sentences for first-time, nonviolent crimes. He is back on message again, doing what he has always wanted to do, if maybe not exactly quite like this. “My campaign slogan,” he says, “is ‘Let’s Get South Carolina Back to Work.”

There is a way in which Greene is living out both a nightmare and a lifelong dream at the same time. He claims to have always been a political junkie, having graduated the University of South Carolina with a degree in political science, voting for Obama twice by absentee ballot and even donating to the President’s campaign. “I can really think back to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 run for President,” he says, mentioning the year his mother died, when he was just 10. “I made a campaign sign out of construction paper. It was a blue sheet of construction paper, and I just cut out red and white letters.”

Signmaking is a skill Alvin Greene may need in the weeks ahead.

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