With the South Carolina GOP primary behind him, Sen. Lindsey Graham appears to be on a glide path to re-election. But as of July 4th, Graham will have one more hurdle to clear when Thomas Ravenel, a wealthy Charleston real estate developer and the former Republican state Treasurer, announces that he'll challenge Graham as an independent candidate on the November ballot.
Ravenel’s name won’t be new to most South Carolinians, nor some reality TV fans. He is the scion of the deeply rooted Ravenel political family, the face of a 2007 cocaine scandal that forced him from office, and, most recently, a cast member of Southern Charm, a reality show on Bravo TV that chronicled the alcohol-fueled lives of the single, social and well-connected in Charleston.
Aside from Ravenel's status as a convicted felon, which prevents him from voting for himself but not from running for U.S. Senate, and the hours of Bravo footage that include a hook-up, a pregnancy scare, copious drinking and plenty of jokes about cocaine and prison, Ravenel’s biggest cross to bear may be his willingness to speak at greater length and with greater candor than any politician probably should.
In a stem-winding two-hour interview, he spoke openly about everything from Lindsey Graham's moral deficits to the difficulty polo players' have finding legal workers to groom their horses to living with his mother in a retirement community in the months after prison (which he describes as a “federal camp”) because he was barred from living in his own home during his sentence.
But Ravenel's candor also illuminates a desire to tackle the problems that Washington has so far ignored and may give voters a reason to take a look at his long-shot bid. With nothing left to lose and no one else to fear offending, Ravenel is ready to unload on the Republican Party, incumbent politicians, the ballooning federal debt, and what he sees as a dangerous and unprecedented expansion of the federal government into the lives of Americans.
“As a Republican, if you’re not anti-gay, anti-immigrant, pro-war and pro-invading this or that country, you get the cold shoulder,” he said from his Mt. Pleasant, S.C. real estate office. “At some point you rationalize certain viewpoints, cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, and you adopt that platform. And the Democrats do the same thing on their side.”
Now that he has been “emancipated” from the party label, the more libertarian Ravenel gladly holds forth on just about any issue that comes up.
On federal spending he warns that the nation is headed for “a doomsday scenario.” “The federal government is making all these promises, but at some point, we’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises,” he says. "We're going to end up like dogs fighting for scraps."
He also speaks of the overarching need for Americans to reevaluate their relationship with their government, "We need to ask not what your government can do for you, but what you can do for yourself and where necessary, what you can do for others.”
On marriage equality, he says he’d rather see the government stay out of marriage altogether. “But if we’re going to have equal treatment under the law, if you’re going to give certain benefits to heterosexual couples that are married, likewise treatment must be given to those who are gay and married,” he said. “A lot of Republicans are intimidated by strident, hateful anti-gay rhetoric from religious right leaders. I’m not cowed by these people. I don’t have to be.”
He also does not appear to be cowed by anti-immigration activists who have blasted the Senate immigration reform bill as “Grahamnesty” because of Lindsey Graham’s support for it.
“These immigrants reinvigorate the American spirit,” Ravenel says of those in the country today. “That’s why I love that show West Side Story, it’s about the possibilities of now, that beautiful sense that something wonderful is around the corner. It’s that spirit that sometimes we Americans take for granted.”
Ravenel endorses a "robust worker visa program," but stops short of endorsing a path to citizenship for those in the United States already. "I am open to any ideas that sound reasonable. What's happening now is totally unreasonable and it’s bad for the economy. Saying let's control the border first and then we’ll deal with immigration is like saying we can't deal with your cancer until your symptoms go away.”
While immigration, marriage equality, and even drug legalization (which he supports) are growing in acceptance among young voters in particular, the largest gulf between Ravenel and his former party is on the role of the U.S. military around the globe. He warns that the U.S. has engaged in nation building, humanitarian missions, and picking winners and losers in countries where we have a track record of getting it wrong.
“I want a military that defends America, not a military that defends Germany or defends Japan,” he said. “The EU has a GDP bigger than America’s. I don’t blame them. Why spend any money on your own military when America’s got it covered?”
His liberty-laced, pro-Constitution approach sounds a lot like the Tea Party activists who railed against Graham and he says agrees in large part with the Tea Party, but not 100%. “We all want limited government. But there are a lot of different factions within the Tea Party movement.”
Ravenel’s subsequent takedown of Graham is enough to warm any Tea Partier’s heart.
“He has no moral principles, there’s no introspection,” Ravenel said. “Lindsey Graham never talks about reforming anything or fixing anything. It’s always about scare-mongering or playing to the people who are paying his bills like the military-industrial complex.”
Pointing to Graham’s support for the now-defunct Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that barred openly gay men and women from military service, Ravenel called Graham “a bigot.”
“He’s silenced and intimidated by religious right voters. I’m not intimidated by these people because I’m running as an independent and I’m independent from the dogmas of both parties.”
He may be independent of his former life, but Ravenel remains defiant about the conviction that derailed his political career seven years ago.
“I was stupid. I was high-profile. It was arrogant,” he says, adding, “If you go along with the status quo in South Carolina, you can break the law with impunity. You challenge the status quo, you get set up. That’s how I feel,” he said. Of a more recent DUI charge in East Hampton, Ravenel says “there’s no excuse for that.”
Ravenel calls the DUI “something I actually feel bad about,” before returning to the subject of his cocaine conviction to argue his point further. “But doing a little bit of cocaine with some friends? I didn’t even do that much. I bought some because people had bought some for me in the past, so I said, ‘Let me contribute, I need to pay my fair share.’ Then you share it, and they come at me with 20 years.’”
In a state as seemingly prudish as South Carolina, you’d think the cocaine bust, the DUI and the reality show would be enough to all but disqualify a person from consideration for higher office. But this is the place that has given Mark Sanford a second chance after all of his escapades and the state that always seems to have surprises stuffed up its cuff-linked sleeves every election day.
Ravenel knows he may not win in November, but he says the run could lay the groundwork for something else down the road. If it’s a redemption story he’s looking for, he may already have that in the small form of Kensington, his three-month old daughter with girlfriend Kathryn Dennis, a 22 year-old fellow Southern Charm cast member who descends from an equally prominent South Carolina political family.
"It’s totally changed everything,” he says of becoming a father for the first time. “Now I'm in bed at 9:30 because I may need to be up at 4:00 am to feed the baby or change a diaper or do whatever is necessary. I feel like a far more responsible adult. It’s made me finally grow up.”
He speaks of the discipline it takes to care for a baby and the overwhelming reward that comes at the end of every exhausting day. “I’ve really missed out on that,” he says, adding. “I finally realize that it’s not about me anymore.”