When the election results began coming in from around the country on the evening of June 8, 2010, there were a number of surprises. But the biggest upset occurred in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in South Carolina. Political neophyte Alvin M. Greene defeated former state legislator and retired circuit court judge Vic Rawl.
The initial reaction among Democrats was “Alvin who?”, but as more became known about Greene, confusion turned to outrage. It seems that last November, Mr. Greene was arrested for showing obscene Internet photos to a University of South Carolina student. Although charged, Greene has not yet been indicted, nor has he entered a plea. As the nominee started doing media interviews, it became painfully obvious that Alvin Greene is “not ready for prime time.”
Theories began to emerge about how an unemployed veteran living with his elderly father could defeat a seasoned politican with a distinguished legal background, especially considering that Greene apparently gave no speeches, made no public appearences and generally did nothing to win the nomination.
Some of these theories involved the candidate’s name. “Al”vin “Green”e was said to remind voters of the singer Al Green. The spelling of his last name (Green with a final silent E) was supposedly more typical of blacks than whites, as was the first name of Alvin. The fact that names were listed alphabetically on the ballot was also said to give Greene an advantage over Rawl.
Other explanations were far more nefarious in nature. Conspiracy theories abounded, most of which revolved around Republican dirty tricks. Someone must have fronted the $10,400 filing fee for the hapless Greene. Perhaps he was paid off by the GOP to wreak havoc with the Democratic primary. The name of notorious South Carolina Republican operative Rod Shealy was bantered about as a possible mastermind behind this political cabal.
Myself being a believer in Occam’s Razor (which essentially states that the simplest solution is usually the correct one), I have a much less convoluted explanation of why Alvin Greene, and not Vic Rawl, won the senatorial nomination. I call it the “Putney Swope Effect.”
Putney Swope is the protagonist of the 1969 film of the same name. In the film, Swope is the “token Black” on the board of directors of an advertising agency. When the chairman of the board dies unexpectedly, the board members are forced to elect a successor. Since the agency bylaws prohibit any member from voting for himself, the safest bet seems to be to vote for the one board member least likely win – Putney Swope. Whether out of sympathy or to block any serious candidate from gaining a majority, every one of the board members votes for Putney, and he’s elected chairman by an overwhelming margin.
Could it be that South Carolina primary voters looked upon Alvin Greene as the Putney Swope of 2010? His opponent, Vic Rawl, appeared to be the odds on favorite for the nomination. His legislative and judicial experience was much more impressive than Greene’s, which was nonexistant. But primaries are the time to send a message, to let the party leadership know that fresh new faces shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. There would be plenty of opportunity to vote for Rawl in the general election in November. But what harm would it do to cast a protest vote in an election that really didn’t matter all that much anyway?
Am I reading too much into the thought processes of the primary voters? Wasn’t Greene a stealth candidate, a mystery man about whom absolutely nothing was known? Not as much as some would have you believe. Although Greene did little or nothing to put himself out to the electorate, he wasn’t totally ignored by the media prior to the election.
In at least two pre-election articles comparing the Senate hopefuls appearing in the South Carolina media (May 15 and May 25), Greene came across much as more impressive than he has in post-election coverage. A thirty-two-year- old African-American with military service as an intelligence specialist and a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of South Carolina, Greene must have seemed to many a viable alternative to the older (64-year-old) Rawl. Add to this the anti-incumbent (read anti-traditionalist) sentiment among voters, and the Greene victory doesn’t seem that unlikely anymore.
In the movie “Putney Swope,” the board of directors live to regret having elected good old Putney, I’m sure there are more than a few Democrats in South Carolina who are experiencing buyer’s remorse over their vote for Alvin Greene.