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Thomas Ravenel: Politics to Prison to Television - and Back to Politics?

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We’ve all heard of politician’s children who become politicians themselves; just take the two generations of presidencies in the Adams and Bush families as examples. We know of entertainers becoming politicians, too (like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger), and even of politicians becoming entertainers (such as Fred Thompson and “Morning Joe” Scarborough). We’re also much too familiar with politicians who later become convicts (including, but far from limited to, Spiro Agnew and “airport men’s room” Larry Craig).

And to top it off, there might be one new candidate for U.S. Senate who actually combines all of these transitional phases: meet Thomas Ravenel, the one and only politician’s son-to-politician-to-convicted felon-to-entertainer-and now back to politician. Known locally in South Carolina as “T-Rav,” he recently confirmed rumors that he wants to challenge Sen. Lindsey Graham as an independent candidate.

Each of his five phases is a tad bit filthy, though, and not just the “convicted felon” part of it. Apparently, the well-off 51-year-old who made a fortune in real estate hopes that South Carolina voters will overlook his history of hazards. But T-Rav is still standing too deep in dirt to make any progress in the race (if he actually enters it), no matter how much money he or his historical family has. And with his spoiled-brat attitude, he’ll probably piss off too many voters to get very far.

The Politician’s Son

The Ravenels are deeply rooted in the history of South Carolina, where a small town in the coastal Lowcountry region bears the family name. Present in the Palmetto State since the late 17th Century, the Ravenels have played an active part in local politics, too, especially the father of T-Rav, Arthur Ravenel Jr.

This elder Ravenel held four different offices, ranging from local school board to state legislature to U.S. House of Representatives, over a six-decade period. He was first elected to state legislature in the “Dixiecrat” days of 1953, but switched to the Republican Party nine years later. He officially retired from politics in 2010, but the elder Ravenel’s name still remains constant in the community: the newest bridge crossing the Cooper River in downtown Charleston bears his name.

Another factor keeping Arthur Ravenel’s name alive in the community is his questionable history, though. He was a staunch defender of the Confederate Flag’s presence atop the State Legislature, for example, and fought against its move to another location on the state grounds. After being publicly scolded for twice referring to the NAACP as the “National Association for the Advancement of Retarded People,” the elder Ravenel offered a formal apology – to retarded people.

The Politician

Following in his father’s footsteps, T-Rav tossed his hat in the ring in 2004 for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by a retiring Fritz Hollings. In a self-funded race, he finished a close third out of six candidates in the Republican primary and went on to endorse Jim DeMint, who later won the general election that year.

In the next election cycle of 2006, Ravenel entered the race for state treasurer, defeating a long-standing incumbent Democrat by a sizable nine-percent margin.

T-Rav would only hold the seat for six months, though, and because of...

The Felony Conviction

Shortly after taking the state treasurer’s office in Jan. 2007, Ravenel was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Then-governor Mark Sanford called on T-Rav to resign on the same June 19 day of the indictment.

State law enforcement officials said they knew of the circumstances before the 2006 election, but needed more information before they could pursue. In April 2007, the case was turned over to the FBI.

The trial revealed then 44-year-old Ravenel to have regularly used cocaine since age 18, and in amounts of about one gram per week. A year later in March 2008, he received a mere wrist-slap sentence of 10 months in federal prison.

In late 2011, Ravenel cited his experience with the arrest and conviction as basis for endorsement of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, noting that the “war on drugs” was too costly.

He had a recent run-in, too; last year Ravenel was arrested for drunken driving while vacationing in the Hamptons of New York.

The Entertainer

Today T-Rav is one of six stars on Bravo’s “Southern Charm” series, a reality show the network says “takes viewers inside the world of Charleston, South Carolina’s most aristocratic families to reveal a world of exclusivity, money and scandal that goes back generations.”

His bio on the show’s website conveniently overlooks Ravenel’s personal scandals, though, listing his real estate work and 2006 election, only to jump to his polo pastime – no mention of the 2007 conviction or other junk.

First airing on March 3, the “Southern Charm” miniseries has gotten reviews ranging from sour to so-so, including the New York Observer’s take of “a boring, dumb, clichéd assortment of the American Southern elite.” That’s a very apt description, too. The series seems to focus on haughty, blue-blood traditions of rich kids and alcohol and sex and alcohol and private jets and alcohol and debutante tiffs. And alcohol.

At least the show has given viewers means to verify T-Rav’s spoiled-rotten reputation, such as through these Episode 1 quotes:

When I got out of prison, I was listless and I found polo.

It’s not that I had a problem with cocaine; I just like the smell of it.

The first time I played bocce ball was in prison.

And this brings us to the next phase of Ravenel’s hyphenated history...

The Return of the Politician

T-Rav doesn’t shag with Lindsey Graham. In early April, he told press he’d run against the incumbent if Graham overcame his six opponents in the Republican primary. Following Graham’s 56-percent take in the June 10 race, Ravenel repeated his campaign threat.

He’s being a bit mysterious about it, though, in his recent interview with Columbia’s The State. He wouldn’t offer details about how he’s arranging the 10,000-signature petition he’ll have to complete by July 15, for example, and which state law requires in order to run for federal office as an independent candidate.

Not offering any specific campaign points, Ravenel only issued anti-Graham comments, calling the incumbent a warhawk more concerned with military contractors than military troops. His statements only seem to mimic the platform of the race’s Democratic candidate, state Sen. Brad Hutto, though.

Hutto is calling for improved veteran’s benefits, and noted in The State’s article that Sen. Graham has overlooked a “scandal-ridden Dept. of Veterans Affairs” while serving on the Senate’s Committee on Armed Services.

The Democratic candidate doesn’t seem concerned about T-Rav, though. Says Hutto campaign consultant Lachlan McIntosh:

We welcome anyone with sincere ideas to the race. Lindsey Graham's tenure has been like a bad sitcom that won't get canceled. People are looking for a new voice. They’re looking for someone who will put South Carolina first.

Hutto’s campaign could benefit from T-Rav in the race, too, on the basis that Ravenel might sway votes away from the Republican. After all, Graham isn’t very much in favor with members of his own party. Four county GOPs have formally censured Graham, and a pre-primary poll found that a majority of Republican voters in the state won’t confirm their support for the incumbent in the November election. And recall the ’08 race, when a nobody with less than $2,000 to spend on his campaign still took 42 percent in a one-on-one race against Graham.

If T-Rav joins the race, many Republican voters might select him instead of holding their noses while they vote for Graham. Add in Libertarian candidate Victor Kocher, and it makes it easier for Hutto to unseat the incumbent, even if only by a plurality win.

But Ravenel will have to overcome the first four levels of his hyphenated history to even make a dent in this fifth one of the Senate race. He's the rich kid of a man who, after six decades of politics, is best known for racism. He's run for office before - only to quickly end his first success in the political game with a felony drug conviction. And the latest chapter in the Life of T-Rav is only a cheesy reality show that further embeds his reputation of spoiled-rotten rich kid. Like Karen Kedrowski, poli-sci professor at Winthrop University, said about Ravenel's possible campaign in The State's recent article:

He would probably be considered a pretty poor investment.

If he wants to make a message in this latest step, then he needs to shape up, sober up, and even somber up before he'll get any positive regard from voters. Only then will Ravenel come close to scoring five-percent of the vote, which might be his maximum achievement in this race for U.S. Senate.

And after the election, while the rest of South Carolina makes a few forward steps with a newly-elected senator, T-Rav can just mosey on off in the sunset, where maybe he can play polo or bocce ball. Or maybe even return to a Club Med federal prison where he can learn yet another pastime.

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