Is Alvin Greene the least likely US senator in history?

He did not campaign, yet won the Democratic primary for South Carolina by a mile. How? David Usborne reports from Manning

No candidate for the US Senate could hope for a kinder setting for the kick-off event of his campaign. There are pastors and preachers, a rousing church choir, two soloists, a full house of supporters jostling to see him up close and an invasion of TV cameras the likes of which this tiny town has never seen. Yet, seated on the stage in the gym of Manning Junior High, the man of the hour, Alvin Greene, 32, looks more terrified than thrilled.

The build-up to his taking the microphone lasts an hour and while the mostly African-American audience vibrates with anticipation and sways to the bursts of music, he is immobile but for the occasional dabbing of sweat from his brow and fiddling with his notepad.

Plenty of stars should be aligned for Greene as he prepares to do battle with the incumbent Jim DeMint, a conservative Republican, ahead of elections in November. He is the first black candidate for the US Senate from South Carolina since the Reconstruction Era from a county that played a pivotal part in the first stirrings of the Civil Rights struggle. He is young, served in the military and is fresh to voters. Moreover, on the curiosity scale of political science, Greene is off the charts. Here, however, is where the story of his run for high national office takes a trickier turn. It could conceivably be fairy tale, but increasingly risks veering towards freak show. Alvin Greene is the candidate that shouldn't be, unless every political observer is missing something. No one knows how it happened, and no one knows how it's going to end.

This is not just the first campaign event held by Greene since he defeated his Democrat rival, former Charleston judge and state lawmaker Vic Rawl, in the primary election in June making him the party's chosen candidate to take on DeMint. It is his first ever. In other words, he won the primary without campaigning. (He did spend $1,000 (£650) on some leaflets.) He had no staff, no battle bus, nothing.

Worse, he still doesn't. Greene is an unemployed veteran, who was discharged involuntarily (though not dishonourably) from the US army nine months ago. He receives unemployment benefits, does not own a computer, lives with an ageing father in a modest home a few miles from here and, so far as anyone can see, still does not have any kind of campaign staff. As he is hurried off the stage at the end of the afternoon's proceedings, members of the media look for his spokesman. There is no such person.

Some are in this room because they feel that since his election – he stomped over Rawl, taking 59 per cent of the vote – Greene has been victimised, even by the Democratic Party which reacted first by asking him to step aside to allow a more established figure to run. (He demurred.) "We cannot allow people to vilify young people just because they win an election," railed Willie Bethune, a local black leader who introduces him to the crowd. "Politics is about how many votes you get in the box and he had a whole lot."

Greene exposed himself to a limited number of interviews after his win and the results have not always been pretty. "He speaks in an uninflected monotone, repeatedly trails off mid-sentence and often mumbles incoherently," offer Newsweek in its latest issue. There was widespread mirth when he told one interviewer that his state's economy might benefit from a new cottage industry making Alvin Greene action figures. That led a minor league baseball team owned by the actor Bill Murray in Charleston to begin selling tiny Statue of Liberty dolls to its fans doctored to show the facial likeness of Greene.

To be genuinely puzzled is surely fair, however. How is it possible in this land of dollar-greased democracy, that someone like Greene could not only triumph in a US Senate primary by so wide a margin without campaigning? Jim Clyburn, a prominent US Congressman from the state, had his theory: "I don't know if he was a Republican plant," he said in the immediate aftermath of the vote. "He was someone's plant."

This would imply that the watching media hordes – especially the particular crowd that has chosen to spend a Sunday afternoon in his company here in Manning – are all victims of some kind of elaborate electoral fraud. An April fool that was sprung in June and won't fulfil its course until election day in November.

The mortification and bafflement of the party and many Democrat voters here remains profound. "We are looking for a little enlightenment like the rest of you are," notes Rick Norred, the school's assistant head, who has his own theory of how Greene won in June. "I think people are willing to vote for the people they don't know because they are disgusted with the people they do know." If this is to be the year of an anti-incumbency movement, then Greene should be its poster boy.

More distressed is Matey Ward, a 68-year-old retired history teacher who has come from Charleston to hear Greene speak. "I just really hope that there's some 'there' there," she says, tapping her head to indicate the hoped-for repository of the candidate's intellect. "Right now I feel disenfranchised. I am still reserving judgement but from what I've heard so far I just don't see who I am going to vote for. I would poke pins in my eyes before voting ever for DeMint."

Part of what occurred, perhaps, was a failure by journalists to examine Greene's record ahead of the primary polling. If they had, they would have asked precisely why he was discharged from the armed forces after 13 years of service (including a brief tour in England) and what prompted the army to demote his rank while he was in South Korea from 2007 to 2008. They would surely also have found that Greene was – still is – facing trial on state obscenity charges of showing pornographic material to a female university student. But none of this happened, and so Candidate Greene he is.

When he finally takes the microphone, Greene offers a speech that mostly recycles the few, barely radical, policy ideas he has previously raised in his media interviews (though not the action doll idea). They include his call, repeated three times, for getting "South Carolina and America back to work for the people again". There is also the immortal, and more or less irrefutable, statement: "Instead of doing less for education, we ought to be doing more". Eager for him to shine, the crowd applauds often. The enthusiasm seems almost to confuse Greene, whose darting eyes betray alarmed pleasure.

Then he gets to another favourite theme – how the justice system is too quick to put offenders on trial and thereafter in prison – and nearly loses his own plot. There is "this guy" a "person of colour", he begins, who has been in legal trouble recently and... Suddenly he seems to change his mind about going further with the story – possibly, you feel, because it may not reflect especially well on its teller – and drifts into a mumble. "But anyway, moving on...."

State prosecutors have postponed Greene's obscenity trial – he was charged last November – removing what could have been a grave distraction for his campaign. He also has a lucky escape when the State Law Enforcement Division cleared him this month of financial wrongdoing in connection with the $10,440 he had to fork over simply to file his candidacy for the senate seat. Questions of malfeasance were raised because last November, when the obscenity charges surfaced, Greene signed an affidavit of indigency qualifying him for a public defender. But investigators found nothing to disprove his claim that he had taken the money from savings accumulated from military pay.

It is a difficult dilemma for the state Democratic Party which worries not only that the Greene candidacy will give DeMint, the darling of the Tea Party movement in the Senate, a free pass to continue his conservative reign from South Carolina for another six years, but also undermine the chances of all the other candidates on the party line in November, including those for state governor and for seats in the US House of Representatives. "The politically expedient thing would be to distance ourselves [from Greene]," Bakari Sellers, a Democrat State legislator, recently posited. "But we're dealing with a human being. We don't want to end up with an individual that's scarred for life."

All of which leaves Greene to declare full steam ahead with his campaign. "I'm the best candidate in the United States Senate race here in South Carolina," he boldly asserts on stage. Never mind that his campaign headquarters is his dad's home, that he has $1,000 available for his campaign against the $3.5m stashed in DeMint's campaign coffers, or that his own party seems unwilling to give him any help even if there has been some word of loaning him a political handler or two.

We could not get to the end of the proceedings without someone evoking David versus Goliath. Just the slimmest prospect of him toppling DeMint will guarantee that this race will be watched as closely as any other in the land. And if not a political miracle, there will instead be a human tragedy to witness.

Judging by his performance at the school here, Greene is doomed to the latter. Or so says Ms Ward, whose mind, she insists, had still been open on her arrival. "Pitiful, really, wasn't it?"

A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Morrissey pictured in 2013
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MS Dynamics NAV Developer

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: MS Dynamics NAV...

Technical / Engineering Manager - West Yorkshire - £50k+

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: The company ...

MS Dynamics NAV Developer

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS Dynamics N...

Data Analytics Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star