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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
Obama: Michelle Will Never Run for Office
7 minutes ago
North Dakota Pipeline Protests Turn Violent
2 hours ago

The protest over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline turned violent overnight as the police and National Guard sought to remove the protesters, surrounding them with assault vehicles and officers in riot gear. The law enforcement officers used pepper spray and fired bean bags for more than six hours. In response, the protesters "lit debris on fire and threw Molotov cocktails in retreat." One woman pulled out a gun and fired at officers, narrowly missing before being arrested. The protesters claim the pipeline would be constructed on land belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

House Leadership Elections Slated for Nov. 15
2 hours ago

The House has scheduled leadership votes for Nov. 15, the day after members return from their election recess. "Since mid-September, members of the House Freedom Caucus have weighed whether they should ask leadership to push back the elections so they can see how House Speaker Paul Ryan performs at the end of the year," but leaders don't seem inclined to grant their request.

Feds Announce Rapid GDP Growth in Q3
2 hours ago

Gross domestic product "expanded at a 2.9% annual clip from July through September. That’s a marked improvement from the first half of the year when the U.S. grew just barely over 1%." The robust numbers make it more likely that the Federal Reserve hikes interest rates at its next meeting.

Oregon Militiamen Found Not Guilty
2 hours ago

"A federal jury on Thursday found Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and five co-defendants not guilty of conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs through intimidation, threat or force during the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Bundy brothers and occupiers Jeff Banta and David Fry also were found not guilty of having guns in a federal facility." In a strange "coda" to the decision, Bundy's attorney Marcus Mumford was tackled and tasered by marshals in the courtroom as he argued that Bundy should be free to go.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.