Alvin Greene has been on the phone all day. That's to be expected for the guy who just won South Carolina's Democratic Senate primary and is facing incumbent Republican Jim DeMint in November. But everyone calling Greene has just been trying to find out who the heck he is — and one thing reporters learned Tuesday is that a criminal complaint was sworn out against him last year for allegedly showing obscene photos to a South Carolina college student and suggesting they go to her dorm room.
Greene, a 32-year-old unemployed military veteran who lives with his parents, defeated Vic Rawl on Tuesday for the Democratic Senate nomination despite having run essentially no public campaign — no events, no signs, no debates, no website, no fundraising.
The result has baffled political observers, who had heavily favored Rawl — a former state legislator, attorney and prosecutor who had the edge inasmuch as he actually campaigned and tried to win. Many in South Carolina (which has grandly lived up to its reputation as a political circus this year) suspect that somewhere, a crafty GOP political operative is snickering.
As far as the local political press can discern, the only positive step Greene took toward campaigning was when he plunked down a $10,400 check in March to satisfy the state's filing fee and get on the ballot. He never registered a campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission or filed a financial disclosure with the Senate Ethics Committee.
So why did he run, and how did he win? "I campaigned," Greene, who spoke rapidly and seemed distracted, told Yahoo! News in a brief interview. "It was a low-budget campaign. I funded it 100 percent out of my own pocket, and kept it simple — it was old-fashioned." Asked what, precisely, that campaign consisted of, and how much he spent on it, Greene demurred. "Not much. I had friends helping me."
He said he hasn't yet reached the $5,000 spending limit that triggers a requirement to file with the FEC, despite having spent that $10,400 filing fee (a pretty penny for someone with no job). Like any good politician, Greene tried to deflect questions about the particulars of his campaign to talk of "the issues."
"I graduated from the University of South Carolina," he said. "We have more unemployment than any other time in South Carolina history. Hold on, I have another beep."
Shortly after his Yahoo! News interview, the Associated Press reported that Greene was arrested in November on the obscene photo complaint. Charges are pending, and he hasn't entered a plea. One could, of course, note that such charges wouldn't necessarily hurt a candidate in a Palmetto state election season that's featured plenty of sensational sexual charges.
Greene's candidacy has raised suspicions that he may have been induced to run by Republican operatives in order to sow dissension in the Democratic ranks. It's not uncommon in South Carolina for Republicans to recruit African-American challengers to run against white frontrunners in Democratic primaries in the hope of drumming up racial tensions. (Greene is black.) The straw candidates aren't supposed to win — they're just supposed to create a racially divisive primary to damage the candidate's ability to put together a coalition in the general election.
It's nothing new to Nu Wexler, the former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "In 2004, on the last day you could file to run in the primary, we were wrapping things up when an SUV with a Bush-Cheney sticker dropped off three black guys who came in to file to run in some local races, and they all paid the filing fee with sequentially numbered cashier's checks from a local credit union," he said. In 1990, famed South Carolina political consultant Rod Shealy was convicted of violating campaign laws after recruiting a black candidate to run in a GOP primary for lieutenant governor in the hope of drawing out racist voters — a maneuver he thought would bolster support for his candidate.
Greene denies that he's a plant. But even if he is, the lack of an actual campaign seems to indicate that whatever plan he might have been a part of was quickly abandoned. Wexler says there may never have even been much of a strategy: "You have consultants doing this kind of thing just because they get bored, and they want something to tell good stories about. It's almost like fraternity pranks."
Greene's success is a testament both to the lackluster quality of the campaign run by Rawl (who raised $186,000 and ran ads) and to the, um, peculiar voting habits of South Carolinians. State Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler speculated to AP that Greene won because his name came before Rawl's on the ballot. Wexler says Greene is a "big name in South Carolina."
We called the South Carolina Democratic Party to ask if it intends to support Greene's candidacy, but haven't heard back. It could attempt to challenge Greene's win by claiming that he didn't pay the filing fee out of his own pocket — which, if true, would be a federal crime. "It puts them in a tough position," Wexler said. "You can't exactly start challenging the filing fees of every candidate."
South Carolina, where the political fail isn't just limited to the Republicans.