Reporting from Manning, S.C. — 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.