Can Boozy, Televised Sexcapades Fuel a Political Comeback?

Thomas Ravenel may use his “Southern Charm” to challenge Lindsey Graham.

MIAMI BEACH, FL - APRIL 26: (L-R) Thomas Ravenel and Rouge Apker attend Miami Beach Polo Event at W South Beach Hotel & Residences on April 26, 2013 in Miami Beach, Florida.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
March 12, 2014, 5:40 p.m.

This fall, a dis­graced South Car­o­lina politi­cian could find him­self on the bal­lot, hop­ing to stage a polit­ic­al comeback years in the mak­ing.

No, not Mark San­ford.

Former South Car­o­lina Treas­urer Thomas Rave­nel, who resigned from of­fice in 2007 and spent sev­en months in pris­on on a co­caine con­vic­tion, is hop­ing to stage a polit­ic­al comeback as soon as this Novem­ber. “I did my time. And there will be a polit­ic­al fu­ture. I’m not done yet,” he re­cently told a loc­al ra­dio show.

The fallen pol is work­ing with a polit­ic­al con­sult­ant and mak­ing an ef­fort to al­ter his im­age in the Pal­metto State, us­ing a new real­ity TV show to re­in­tro­duce him­self to voters. But his op­tions are lim­ited. Around the time Rave­nel was ar­res­ted, South Car­o­lina passed le­gis­la­tion bar­ring felons from run­ning for state of­fice with­in 15 years of a con­vic­tion.

“I’d like to re­deem my­self in the eyes of the pub­lic, but as a con­victed felon I can only run for three of­fices: the U.S. House, the U.S. Sen­ate — or pres­id­ent of the United States,” he says, wink­ing, in the first epis­ode of Bravo’s new real­ity series South­ern Charm.

“T-Rav,” as he’s known loc­ally and in a column he writes for the Char­le­ston City Pa­per, has floated the pos­sib­il­ity of a re­turn to polit­ics this fall, telling the Char­le­ston Post and Cour­i­er earli­er this month that he may mount an in­de­pend­ent bid against Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham. Gra­ham is already locked in a four-way primary for a re­turn bid to the Sen­ate, which is he is ex­pec­ted to win.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Gra­ham said, when asked about a pos­sible chal­lenge from Rave­nel, not­ing that he and his team are fo­cused on the primary. “He comes from a fine fam­ily,” Gra­ham ad­ded.

Asked if he’d seen South­ern Charm, Gra­ham laughed. “I’ll wait to read the book,” he said.

Rave­nel’s be­ha­vi­or on the show thus far hardly meshes with a man plan­ning a polit­ic­al comeback. In the first epis­ode of the series, the 51-year-old drinks heav­ily with his friends while hit­ting on a bevy of wo­men half his age, search­ing for the per­fect polit­ic­al wife, be­fore bed­ding one of them. “I nor­mally don’t have a thing for red­heads,” he re­flects the next morn­ing. “My in­tu­ition said “‘no,’ but maybe my little head was say­ing ‘yes’ be­cause she was hot.”

He fol­lows up later at the din­ner table with a joke about his co­caine ar­rest. “I didn’t have a prob­lem with co­caine. What I real­ized later is I just really liked the smell of it,” he says.

After a friend pulls him aside to talk about get­ting more ser­i­ous about his polit­ic­al fu­ture — in­sist­ing, “Bro, no more coke jokes” — Rave­nel re­sponds that he has to be true to him­self.

“If I want to be out there and swim with some cute girls, I’m go­ing to do it…. I say f—k pub­lic per­cep­tion,” he says. “To thine own self be true and as night fol­lows day, thou canst be false to an­oth­er man. That’s Macbeth.” (It’s ac­tu­ally Ham­let, and while not a per­fect quo­ta­tion, the man had been play­ing polo and drink­ing all day, so points for the at­tempt.)

“Macbeth would nev­er be elec­ted today with that f—king ad­vice,” friend and fel­low cast mem­ber Whit­ney Sudler-Smith re­torts.

“Well, then I won’t be elec­ted,” Rave­nel says.

His friend and polit­ic­al con­sult­ant, Will Folks, who also ap­pears on the show, says that’s just Rave­nel. “There is no ob­fus­ca­tion when it comes to in­ter­act­ing with Thomas Rave­nel. There is no con­fu­sion over where he’s com­ing from,” Folks told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

That kind of hon­esty ap­peals to voters, and par­tic­u­larly con­ser­vat­ives, he ar­gued, call­ing Rave­nel a “South­ern Bul­worth.”

“The guy is ideo­lo­gic­ally in line very much with the grow­ing fisc­al-con­ser­vat­ive, so­cial-liber­tari­an move­ment. His ideo­logy is right. His per­son­al life is a little bit out there, but he al­ways says he’s got two out of three and two out of three ain’t bad,” Folks said.

It should be noted that Folks, a former San­ford press sec­ret­ary, is the con­ser­vat­ive Pal­metto State blog­ger who earned his 15 minutes of fame when he claimed in 2010 that he had had an ex­tramar­it­al af­fair with now-Gov. Nikki Haley. Haley has al­ways denied the ac­cus­a­tion, and the claims were nev­er proven to be true.

Should Rave­nel mount a bid for of­fice this year — and that’s far from a cer­tainty — Folks said that he won’t walk away from his ar­rest re­cord. Both men are liber­tari­ans and be­lieve that what Rave­nel did should not have been il­leg­al in the first place. “I think his view is what he did was cir­cum­stan­tially wrong — mean­ing, it was a lapse of judg­ment based on his po­s­i­tion — but that it is an ac­tion that is not in­her­ently wrong and should not be po­liced by the gov­ern­ment­al au­thor­it­ies. And I agree with him a hun­dred per­cent on that,” Folks said.

Rave­nel’s cru­sade against the na­tion’s drug laws could find sup­port among liber­tari­ans. But it could back­fire on a man who so re­cently was ejec­ted from state of­fice, said Joel Saw­yer, who served as com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for San­ford’s suc­cess­ful re­turn cam­paign to Con­gress and worked with both men as the gov­ernor’s spokes­man. “There’s no sense of con­tri­tion what­so­ever,” Saw­yer said, adding that “he’s ba­sic­ally say­ing “‘the only thing I did wrong was get caught.’”

In ad­di­tion to the co­caine in­cid­ent, there are oth­er obstacles to Rave­nel’s polit­ic­al fu­ture.

In 2011, he threatened to give up his U.S. cit­izen­ship after learn­ing that, as a con­victed felon, he could no longer leg­ally pur­chase a fire­arm. Folks’s blog picked up the story. But Rave­nel’s ini­tial an­nounce­ment, made via Face­book, has since been de­leted.

Just this past Ju­ly, he was ar­res­ted on a drunk-driv­ing charge in East Hamp­ton. He has dis­puted the charges, ar­guing that he had only two drinks that even­ing be­fore get­ting be­hind the wheel. The case was re­cently pushed back un­til May 8.

Saw­yer put Rave­nel’s chances of win­ning fed­er­al of­fice at “some­where between zero and snow­ball’s chance in hell.”

“I don’t see that there’s any way on this Earth that someone who acts like Thomas Rave­nel has a polit­ic­al fu­ture,” Saw­yer said. The dif­fer­ence between the two Pal­metto State un­der­dogs, he ar­gues, is that San­ford ran his cam­paign “with a very sin­cere sense of hu­mil­ity” while, “on the oth­er hand, you have a per­son who is a liv­ing monu­ment to hubris.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear from South­ern Charm, however, it’s that Rave­nel is in­deed charm­ing. While play­ing bocce ball with a young wo­man, he ac­tu­ally man­ages to pull off the line, “You know when the first time I played this game was? In pris­on.”

And that, coupled with his wealth and fam­ily name (Rave­nel comes from a fam­ily that’s ruled Char­le­ston’s high so­ci­ety since the 1680s), could give the former treas­urer a shot, however small, at re­turn­ing to polit­ic­al life. “Ninety-five per­cent of the elect­or­ate, all that they know about you is what they see on TV, your com­mer­cials,” Saw­yer said. “He does have enough per­son­al re­sources to make people pay at­ten­tion to him. Hope­fully, at the end of the day, he’ll get his “‘look at me’ from the TV show.”

Al­though Rave­nel wouldn’t be the first real­ity TV star to make it to Con­gress — Rep. Sean Duffy of Wis­con­sin was on The Real World in the 1990s — the prox­im­ity of the tap­ing to a polit­ic­al cam­paign an­nounce­ment could be a li­ab­il­ity. “A lot of people view him as ar­rog­ant, a lot of people view him as con­des­cend­ing,” Folks said. “I think if you spend a day with the guy, I think you walk away lik­ing him.”

Asked if he would have sug­ges­ted that Rave­nel go on South­ern Charm be­fore an­noun­cing a cam­paign, Folks de­murred. “I mean, the beau­ti­ful thing about Thomas is you can tell him whatever you want, but he’s go­ing to do what he wants.”

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