In the space of a few minutes on national television this month, Thomas Ravenel admitted to smoking pot, streaking nude and participating in ... er, ah ... unusual sex acts.. He also declared his likely candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
Even by South Carolina’s sometimes zany political standards, it was not your traditional announcement.
But, to use the catchphrase that Ravenel popularized a decade ago during a previous run for the U.S. Senate, “That’s how Thomas Ravenel rolls.”
Now, the Charleston businessman and disgraced former South Carolina treasurer says he is rolling up his sleeves to campaign as an independent, breaking from the Republican Party to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
It might seem like a bold gambit from a man with well-publicized legal problems, but Ravenel is energized and enthusiastic about his chances of unseating his Upstate rival, whom he criticizes for being under the thumb of corporate interests and beholden to hateful Republican policy positions. Ravenel proposes righting the country by adhering to a libertarian agenda and reducing the involvement of the federal government in almost everything –whether foreign entanglements, the economy or the regulation of marriage and drugs.
Much has changed for 51-year-old Ravenel, or “T-Rav” as he has come to be known, since he resigned from the state Treasurer’s Office in 2007 and pleaded guilty to cocaine-related federal drug charges.
Following his release in 2009 from a 10-month prison term, Ravenel has sought to salvage his reputation, continuing his lucrative career in commercial real estate development, taking up polo and securing a starring role in the Charleston-based reality show “Southern Charm,” which premiered in March on the Bravo channel.
Last month, Ravenel also became a father, celebrating a daughter born to girlfriend, Kathryn Dennis, also a cast member of “Southern Charm” and 29 years his junior.
He also just downsized, selling his 5,500-square foot mansion in downtown Charleston for $3.3 million, enabling him more freedom to enjoy his Edisto Island plantation or remotely manage his business while following the U.S. polo scene, which moves seasonally between locales like Aiken, Florida and New York.
Gorgeous footage, buffoons
If you’ve seen Ravenel on “Southern Charm,” chances are he had a drink in his hand or a lady in his arms.
The reality show follows a handful of Charleston socialites as they prance around the Holy City and the Lowcountry, enjoying assorted bars and attending fancy, staged house parties. It’s not all nightlife, though, as much partying, or “day drinking,” occurs while the sun shines, too. So much indulgence unleashes the cast members’ passions, which leads to stormy romances and many dramatic confrontations.
For Charleston residents, who were at first generally cool to the news of a reality show coming to town, it can make for either objectionable or enjoyable television.
On the one hand, the city looks gorgeous in the footage, locals say.
On the other hand, the cast often acts like buffoons.
Many proud Charlestonians would have preferred Bravo choose another town, but other residents enjoy watching each week to see the cast’s outrageous behavior and what parts of the city are spotlighted. Each episode has an average audience of 1.1 million people.
“Some people hate it and think it’s downright awful,” says Chandler Thomas, 28, a clothing executive who lives downtown. “I just take it with a grain of salt and laugh along.”
The GOP? ‘It’s all absurd’
The cast – known as Charmers – features pretty women and unabashed bachelors.
According to the women, the men suffer from PPSD, or Peter Pan Syndrome, meaning they never want to grow up.
That diagnosis might be considered especially appropriate for Ravenel, who, at age 51, is considerably older than many of his friends on the show. Still, he is youthful, and the show has featured him enjoying coffee in bed with his lover, hosting a polo match at his plantation on his personal polo field and making jokes about how he doesn’t have a problem with cocaine – he only likes the smell of it.
That was all in the first episode.
Ravenel says the show is accurate in its portrayal of him.
Yet, off camera, he projects a more earnest persona and is eager to discuss his motivation for re-entering politics. He says he has become disenchanted with the GOP, his former political party, claiming it serves “America’s military industrial complex” and is held hostage by the religious right.
Most of the Republican Party’s leaders, Ravenel says, repeat the same, tired rhetoric, just in different ways, and he says he has had enough.
“I’m totally changed. I’ve been emancipated from all this Republican dogma,” says Ravenel. “Whether it’s being anti-immigration, being-anti gay, being militaristic and wanting to engage in all these military interventions across the planet. That’s all absurd.”
Democrats, he claims, are no better, doing nothing but the bidding of labor unions.
‘My Achilles heel’
Ravenel shared this political philosophy on the porch of his 19th-century Greek Revival mansion at Brookland Plantation, where he peppered his commentary with paraphrased quotes from George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Ben Franklin and more.
Before the Revolutionary War, Brookland – also spelled Brooklands – was known for its bountiful indigo crop. More recently, beginning in the late 1950s, it was used as a home for homeless and delinquent Lowcountry boys for 10 years.
Some might argue not much has changed, that Brookland still is home to at least one troubled male – its owner.
Beyond the woman problems and debauchery associated with “Southern Charm,” Ravenel pleaded guilty in March to driving while intoxicated in New York after being arrested in the Hamptons last year, causing his license to be suspended for six months.
That was a misdemeanor at least.
His 2007 felony conviction for using and sharing cocaine with friends in Charleston has been more damaging, causing him occasional hiccups in obtaining business loans from banks and preventing him from possessing a firearm.
Ravenel does not shy away from discussing his legal problems, conceding his behavior has been reckless at times. At the same time, he feels he has been shortchanged by the justice system.
In New York, his blood-alcohol level was borderline, he says, and he was the recipient of some poor legal advice. A policeman, however, reported Ravenel crossed the road’s centerline and drifted onto its shoulder while driving at 2:30 a.m.
In regards to his cocaine conviction, Ravenel says his indictment was motivated politically and his punishment was excessive.
“I’m not trying to say that wasn’t a stupid move, you know: Doing cocaine and sharing it? But, obviously, justice was not blind,” says Ravenel. “I got a worse sentence than the drug dealer. How’s that work? He had a thousand customers. What happened to the other 999?”
Ravenel’s complaints about the justice system, and America’s drug laws, aren’t limited to his own lawbreaking.
He says he is outraged racial minorities in the United States are punished disproportionately for drug crimes. He is upset at the overseas presence of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and suggests abolishing the agency. He also doesn’t think the government has any right to dictate what substance adults can and cannot use, calling the ongoing “War on Drugs” a folly on par with Prohibition.
“What I do in the privacy of my own home should be my own business,” says Ravenel.
That said, he recognizes his behavior does not impress many.
“My personal life has always been my Achilles heel,” Ravenel says. “The main thing that I want to stress is: It’s what you do in your public life that impacts other people. We all fight our own inner demons. We all get knocked down 1,000 times, but we get up 1,000 times, and I think that’s what important.”
‘I really made a big mistake’
Ravenel grew up in Charleston, the youngest of six children.
His father, Arthur, was a state legislator and congressman, esteemed enough to have the city’s new main bridge over the Cooper River named in his honor. Ravenel’s mother, Louise, was an advocate for the mentally disabled and is credited with founding what is today is known as Protection & Advocacy For People With Disabilities, the first S.C. organization to push for the rights of the disabled.
“She dedicated her life to helping the needs of the less fortunate, the handicapped,” says Thomas Ravenel, whose brother, William, has Down syndrome. “She’s been a warrior on behalf of equal rights.”
Ravenel’s parents separated when he was 10 years old. About that same time, William went to live in a group home and his mother started work. His other, older siblings were out of the house, too, married or in college.
“It was a little difficult you know, when everyone left,” says Ravenel. “I was kind of a latchkey kid there, truth be known. But my parents and I are really close.”
Ravenel attended public schools and was the captain of his high school football and wrestling teams. After graduating from The Citadel in 1985, he sold real estate and, after earning a master’s of business administration degree, formed his own development company, building and leasing shopping centers throughout the South for stores, including Advanced Auto Parts and Food Lion.
He married in 1995 but was separated a year later.
In 2001, he was engaged again but jilted his bride-to-be on the day before their wedding.
“I called her on her cellphone. I didn’t even have the balls to tell it to her face,” he says. “I had some screwed up values. I really made a big mistake, and I paid for it. It kind of led to my downfall.”
‘It makes no sense’
Ravenel’s first attempt at public office was a bid for a S.C. House seat in 1988, but he lost in the primary. Then, in 2004, he ran for the U.S. Senate, placing third in the Republican Primary.
This year, he is avoiding June’s Republican Primary by saying he will run as an independent, though political scientists are skeptical of his chances of success.
David White, a political science professor at Francis Marion University, says “high-quality” political challengers to incumbents normally must have three characteristics: high name recognition, money and previous experience in elective office.
While Ravenel partially can check off each of those boxes, his experience in office was brief, and marred by his indictment and resignation. Though Ravenel’s name is somewhat recognizable to many S.C. residents, it is not necessarily for the right reasons, adds White, who expressed amazement at Ravenel’s decision to participate in a reality television show before running for office.
“It seems an odd launching point for a Senate campaign in South Carolina,” said White. “I cannot imagine his campaign will take off.”
Furman University political science professor Danielle Vinson says Ravenel would be better served by getting back into politics at the local or state level, whether as an elected official or in some other capacity.
“It makes no sense to me,” said Vinson. “If you want to resurrect a political career, the way to do it is not this kind of reality show. It’s getting back to work.”
Ravenel’s status as an independent also does not bode well for his Election Day results, Vinson said.
“A lot of people, when they see an independent candidate, they think they’re wasting their vote,” said Vinson, “and, often times, they are correct.”
One potential vote for Ravenel is Elaine Savarese, 24, who became familiar with the candidate by watching “Southern Charm.”
Savarese, the owner of a flower shop in downtown Charleston, says she agrees with Ravenel’s politics and is impressed by the eloquence of his arguments. She wishes, though, that he didn’t so frequently come off like a “jerk.”
“It’s a shame that Thomas Ravenel is acting so immature because, otherwise, I think he’s pretty smart,” says Savarese.
‘Two out of three ain’t bad’
Ravenel says he realizes his behavior on television can appear extreme.
“I believe strongly in the ideology of personal freedom and, sometimes, I’ve taken those freedoms too far,” he says. “I think that, you know, voters who watch my behavior they probably correctly say, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t take his political ideas too seriously.’
“But I think these ideas deserve to be taken seriously.
“I would only say that I’m gonna do better. I pledge to do better and be a better example of what I believe in.”
Ravenel says that the birth of his daughter has redefined his sense of responsibility.
He and girlfriend, Dennis, have discussed marriage, though he is hesitant to commit yet, he says, because of their age difference. Nonetheless, he credits Dennis, whose grandfather was the late, powerful state Sen. Rembert Dennis of Berkeley County, as a “very good woman” and a “good mom.”
“This works for us right now,” he says. “The main focus is our child and to ensure that she is taken care of and all her needs are met.”
Ravenel says he likes to tell people that: “I’m good in my business life. I’m right on the issues. My personal life is a little crazy – two out of three ain’t bad.”
“Now, with the child and Kathryn,” he says, “I’m working for three of three.”
Jason Ryan, a former staff writer for The State, lives in Charleston
Thomas J.J. Ravenel at a glance.
The Charleston political scion, former state treasurer and drug felon turned reality TV character, who says he plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Lindsey Graham
Age: 51, son of former state Sen. and U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel, namesake of Charleston’s Cooper River bridge
Home: Edisto Island
Occupation: Founder and president of Charleston-based Ravenel Development Corp., a developer and owner of shopping centers and retail stores in the South and Midwest
You may know him as: Former S.C. state treasurer, elected in 2006, and current reality TV star in Bravo’s “Southern Charm”
The ups and downs of T-Rav
1985: Graduates from The Citadel
1991: Earns a master’s of business administration degree from the University of South Carolina
1992: Starts Ravenel Development Corp.
2004: Runs unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate; after placing third in the primary, Ravenel endorses second-place finisher Jim DeMint, a Greenville congressman, who goes on to win the seat
2006: Elected state treasurer of South Carolina, defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Grady Patterson
2007: After being indicted on federal drug charges, resigns from Treasurer’s Office and pleads guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute
2008: Begins 10-month federal prison sentence for the drug charge
2013: Arrested in New York for driving while intoxicated
A busy 2014
March: Stars in “Southern Charm,” a reality show about Charleston socialites
March: Pleads guilty in New York to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated; his drivers’ license is suspended for six months
March: Celebrates birth of daughter Kensington Calhoun Ravenel with girlfriend, Kathryn Dennis
April: Announces likely campaign as an independent for the U.S. Senate seat held by two-term GOP incumbent Lindsey Graham
Ravenel on different aspects of his life
Ravenel’s role on ‘Southern Charm’ - The show has featured Ravenel enjoying coffee in bed with his lover, hosting a polo match at his plantation on his personal polo field and making jokes about how he doesn’t have a problem with cocaine – he only likes the smell of it. And that was the first episode.
... and what does he want? Other than to be a U.S. senator, reality TV star and legalize drugs