MANNING, S.C. – Alvin Greene earned the nickname “turtle” in high school – a quiet, withdrawn boy who was smart when he applied himself but rarely took a chance and tried to put himself in comfortable situations.
Nearly four weeks ago, the 32-year-old unemployed military veteran turned South Carolina’s political scene upside down when he won the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat. And unlike that high school student, he’s taking a big chance: running against powerhouse Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
He is remembered as painfully shy by those who knew him in high school, where Greene was the only black person on the tennis team. His mother died of cancer when he was a boy; a brother died of cystic fibrosis. The few people who know him say the man with a political science degree from the University of South Carolina is smarter than his national image suggests.
But much remains murky about him. He spends his days in the home he shares with his ailing father on the two-lane backroad to South Carolina’s beaches, about four miles outside Manning.
He says he campaigned across the state but doesn’t remember where. He has no staff. He touts his service in the Army and Air Force, but won’t specify what he did or why he was “involuntarily” discharged. He says he decided two years ago to run for Senate but appears to have done little except pay the $10,440 filing fee with a hand-written, hand-delivered check to party headquarters.
At the small businesses surrounding his hometown about 50 miles southeast of Columbia, plenty of people have heard of Greene. But from the post office to the small diners to the shop that sells CDs and other merchandise, few know much about him.
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A trip to his home doesn’t provide much more illumination. The days after Greene won the Democratic primary by a 30,000-vote landslide, he welcomed reporters into his home. He spoke to The Associated Press for the better part of an hour. A Washington Post reporter wrote he spent more than three hours with Greene, his father and brother.
But Greene didn’t say much, repeating talking points and deflecting any questions about his past, like his “involuntary” discharge from the military after 13 years of service or who was backing his campaign.
After dozens of interviews, the candidate has begun to shun reporters, wearily asking what the story is going to be about and sometimes refusing to talk.
Two weeks ago, Greene asked the same AP reporter he’d welcomed into his home to leave, saying he was “a busy man” and repeating “Go! Go! Go! Go!” while avoiding eye contact. A phone call to arrange an interview later that day was met with a gruff request to return a week later at 1:30. When the appointment arrived, Greene wasn’t there. Greene answered another request for a long interview Monday by telling the reporter to call back in a couple of weeks.
Greene’s older brother said a national television crew recently spent a couple of days in Manning doing a story. They wanted to get video of Greene at church on a Sunday, basking in the attention from his congregation. Greene told them he needed to stay home and answer the phone.
“I’ve told him he needs to get people to do that kind of stuff. But he’s hardheaded and doesn’t listen,” said James Jr., 12 years older than his brother.
James Jr. beams with pride when he talks about how his little brother shook up politics, comparing Greene winning the primary to the U.S. moon landing.
“Your dreams can come true,” James Jr. said.
Publicly, though, Greene doesn’t seem to be enjoying the harsh spotlight.
The day after his victory, the AP reported he had been arrested in November and charged with a felony for allegedly showing pornography to a teenage college student. Greene has refused to comment.
U.S. Senate, state and federal officials have called for investigations into his finances after he initially was granted a public defender to fight the charge and still had money to pay the filing fee about four months later. Greene said he saved his military pay for two years.
Officials say Greene entered the South Carolina Air National Guard in 1995 when he was 17. He briefly served in Texas in 1996, then served the next years as an intelligence specialist. He was honorably discharged in 2002 and was free to enlist in another military branch.
Greene’s records are blank until 2006, when he re-enlisted for nearly a year with the South Carolina Army National Guard. Again, Greene was discharged and allowed to enter another branch. The next year he signed up with the U.S. Army, serving more than two years before his discharge last August.
Everywhere else, Greene faded to the background.
Tennis coach Kay Young said she remembers just about every one of her players over her nearly two decades leading the team. But she barely recalls Greene, who she said was a smart boy who earned the “turtle” nickname because he was so introverted.
“I do remember he wasn’t outgoing and he was picked on unmercifully,” said Young, who had no idea her former player was running until she saw her ballot on primary day.
When Greene was 10, his mom died of cancer. He suffered another blow about a decade later when his brother Timmy died from cystic fibrosis while Greene was doing ROTC training in Texas, James Jr. said.
One of the few places in Manning where Greene is often seen is Spencer and Tom’s Barber Shop downtown. He and his father come in about once a month, said his barber, Spencer Tindal.
Political opinions and other small talk bounce off the walls of the tiny shop, but Tindal said Greene doesn’t talk much. He did tape a green campaign flyer to the wall – one of the few tangible signs of Greene’s candidacy. It stayed up only until he won the primary.
There is one thing that perks Greene up – taking on DeMint. Greene said he decided South Carolina deserved a better senator about two years ago when he was stationed in South Korea.
“I want a debate. A September debate,” Greene said the day after his win, a smile twinkling on the edge of his lips. “A good September debate, just compare and contrast the issues.”