Proprietors and shop managers in the strip malls along Broad River and Two Notch roads take pride in visits from political candidates. Many of the businesses are minority-owned, and when the candidate is black, there is always special interest. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn and newly elected Mayor Steve Benjamin — a fellow Democrat and the state capital's first black mayor — are well known along these venues. The Clyburn billboards above the din of traffic are Times Square huge.
But ask people here about Alvin Greene, the unexpected Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, and the answer you often get is some variation of this: "Don't know the cat," says Glenn Johnson as he cuts Troy Boulware's hair in his shop on Broad River. His Obama "Hope" posters are still hanging. "First time I ever seen the dude was in a mug shot."
"A lot of black folks didn't even know he was in the race," Boulware adds.
"They know now," Johnson says. "A lot of white people done started to shine a light on him. Goes to show you, you in the dirty South now."
The mystery of how Greene — without money, campaign staff or poetic stump speeches — won the Democratic primary is thicker than the heat.
Greene, a 32-year-old military veteran, is black in a state that has not elected an African American to statewide office in modern times. He was all but invisible to voters during the primary. In interviews since, he has appeared confused and unaware of basic facts about his candidacy. Yet 103,362 South Carolinians cast their ballots for him.
Some voters are now confused, others angry, about how it happened. Greene won almost 60 percent of the vote, and although few give him even a remote chance against Republican Sen. Jim DeMint this fall, his victory has caused alarm and embarrassment. Many black voters blame the Democratic Party for not vetting Greene, who, the Associated Press reported after the primary, faces felony obscenity charges over allegations that he showed pornography to a University of South Carolina student in November. Greene has said he is not guilty. Some here wonder whether the GOP somehow had a hand in his win.
There may be a more mundane explanation. Asked by a reporter whether they voted for Greene, nearly three dozen people say no, absolutely not. Some react as if they have just been asked to swallow castor oil. But if many won't admit to it, lest they appear to have been duped, Ronnie Morris, 62, black and the co-owner of a courier service, is willing to own up.
"Here's how it happened, I'll be honest," he begins, eyeing his hamburger at the restaurant in a Piggly Wiggly grocery. "In between work and lunch, I went to vote. His name was at the top of the ballot. And I just voted for him. Didn't find out anything about him until I saw him on the news for that sex investigation and I said: 'Lord have mercy. I voted for this dude!' "
Morris is sitting with his brothers, Calvin, 64, and Bernard, 65. Like him, they are military veterans and Columbia natives.
"Ronnie," Calvin says, upending his glass of sweet tea, "you can't accept the fact that the Republicans have been up to dirty tricks. When you smell mud, there's dirt. Somebody has just got to dig it up."
"But this is a die-hard Republican state," Ronnie says. "Why would the Republicans have to plant someone? They know they'll win. It boils down to this: People went out and pulled the first name on the ballot. I did a little survey. Six friends of mine. Five said they did exactly what I did. Just voted for the dude. And these five people didn't fall off no garbage truck, either. These are educated people."
Calvin and Bernard give their brother a look of pity.
"If I'm a Republican," Calvin says, "I'm gonna love this for the next few months. The Democrats are gonna get beat down."
Bernard wants to know: "Who gave him the money? Al Capone?" The filing fee was $10,400, and Greene is unemployed.
At a nearby table, Chamberlin Phillips, 45, is also baffled by Greene's victory.
"It's shocking that, in this political climate, when people spend millions on campaigns, that he could win. I saw no advertising for him. I've seen more advertising for nightclubs around here than I've seen for him. There was just no exposure about this gentleman." Phillips, who is black, expresses another point of dismay: "He wasn't vetted by the Democratic Party. There are a lot of talented African Americans here."
The word "conspiracy" can be heard quite frequently in the shops of the Broad River and Two Notch roads area. Many wonder whether Greene was a plant, the weakest candidate propped up to fall to DeMint.
"Could people have voted for Greene who didn't want him to win?" asks Garry Baum, a spokesman for the South Carolina State Election Commission. "Anything is possible. It's a theory, and I'll leave that to the theorists."
At the Piggly Wiggly, the diners don't need the help of theorists to tell them what happened. Jim Starnes, who works for the Mental Health Department and was a precinct captain on primary day, is smarting over the election results: "I think a significant number of Republicans voted for him. Face it, if the Republicans have the weakest candidate, they won't have to spend as much of their own money." Then he ponders what he has said: "You'd think, though, if the Republicans did this, why didn't they pick someone more believable?"
That evening, LaToya Thompson, 35, is sitting at an outdoor cafe near downtown. She works in customer service for a cable company. She, too, cast her ballot for Greene, whom she had never heard of, never seen, and never read any literature about. "I voted for him, to be honest, because he had the same last name as a friend of mine," she says. She shrugs her shoulders. "Listen, our governor went to Argentina to see his mistress with my tax money. Alvin Greene is just falling into the South Carolina scheme of things. He's being a politician."