Alvin Greene and the Strange Politics of South Carolina

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Alvin Greene (South Carolina Democratic Party)
Alvin Greene (South Carolina Democratic Party)

Alvin Greene, a 32-year-old, unfunded, unemployed veteran who is black and lives with his mother in Manning, S.C., ran away with the Democratic nomination for the Senate in the Palmetto State last night. In the November general election, he will face first-term GOP incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint, who many expect to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.

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If elected, Greene will become only the fourth black person elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction and the first from the South. But let's pause here for an important question: What the hell is going on in South Carolina?

Greene, who is completely unknown to Democratic officials in South Carolina or anywhere, put his win in dramatic historical perspective: ''I want to thank all my supporters for making history in South Carolina,'' he told the Greenville News. ''It's been over 100 years since a black has won the nomination of a major party to the U.S. Senate from this state.''

No kidding. South Carolina, which is almost 29 percent black and ranks fourth among states with the largest percentage of black citizens, has elected only one African American to Congress in the last 100 years, and that is the current Democratic Majority Whip in the House, James Clyburn.

Democrats don't win statewide races in South Carolina anymore, so there is almost no scenario that plausibly explains a Greene victory over DeMint in November. On the other hand, there is no plausible explanation of how he won the Democratic nomination in the first place. The possibilities are intriguing.

Is this guy some kind of political genius? Some kind of stealth savant who has retooled and remastered the art of grassroots campaigning so that he could win 59 percent of the vote without breaking a sweat, that he could demolish a better-known, better-funded, well-credentialed candidate, while escaping the notice of his opponent, his party and the media? Greene defeated Charleston lawyer Vic Rawl, a former prosecutor, circuit judge and state representative, who graciously conceded: ''The people have chosen,'' said Rawl, 64. ''There's no question that Mr. Greene is the candidate they selected and I wish him the best.''

This one, undoubtedly, will get more interesting. I'm betting on a case of mistaken identity; South Carolina Democrats thought they were voting for someone else when they voted for Alvin Greene. But just to be clear, this is a guess, pure speculation, with nothing factual to back it up. Still, it is as good an explanation as I've heard. The other speculation floating around in the political ether is that Greene is a Republican plant. The support for that theory is that it took $10,400 to file for the primary, and Greene initially tried to do it with a personal check.

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The Columbia Free Times, an alternative weekly in the state capital, described the odd sequence leading up to Greene's filing: ''The candidate … walked into the state Democratic Party headquarters in March with a personal check for $10,400. He said he wanted to become South Carolina's U.S. senator. Needless to say, Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler was a bit surprised. Fowler had never met Greene before, she says, and the party isn't in the habit of taking personal checks from candidates filing for office.''

According to the Times story by Cory Hutchins, Fowler informed Greene he needed to establish a campaign organization and open a campaign account. And she got personal, asking Green, ''if he thought it was the best way to invest more than $10,000 if he was unemployed.'' Greene left, came back several hours later with a campaign check, which the party happily accepted. But that was the last anyone heard of Greene until last night, when he won in a walk.

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This was one of the biggest surprises of the night, but maybe not as big as it would have been had it happened somewhere other than South Carolina. This is the state where the sitting governor, Mark Sanford, is now world-famous for leaving his wife, family and job as chief executive of the state to visit his mistress in Argentina without telling anyone, and then pining publicly for his lost Argentine lover.

And this is the state where the leading candidate for governor on the Republican side is an Indian-American woman, who in the final days of her primary campaign, had to fight off unseemly allegations from very specific, very powerful, very married men who said they had slept with her. That is not politics as usual, not even for South Carolina.

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When the delegates to the South Carolina Secessionist Convention gathered in a church in Charleston in December 1860, beginning a sequence of events that would lead to the Civil War, a famous South Carolinian at the time, Judge James Louis Petigru, pointed to the church and observed, ''It looks like a church, but it is a lunatic asylum.'' Petigru refused to join the secessionists, because, he said, ''South Carolina is too small to be a republic but too large to be a lunatic asylum.''

Maybe then, but the scale and scope of lunatic asylums have changed over the years. They are now the size of … South Carolina.

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Terence Samuel is The Root's editor-at-large. His first book, The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate, was released last month. Follow him on Twitter.

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