Can a state politician repair his image after serving six months in jail for cocaine possession? Former South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel might find the path to political redemption a little tricky after the first season of his reality TV show, Bravo’s Southern Charm, was defined by regular bouts of intoxication and an out-of-wedlock baby with a woman 29 years his junior. But that won’t stop him from trying. He wants to test the model established by Rep. Sean Duffy (a Wisconsin Republican and Real World alum) by running for Congress after starring in a reality show.
“Should the current US Sen. Lindsey Graham be the nominee,” Ravenel said during a post-show interview on Bravo last month, “I’m going to throw my hat in the ring as an independent candidate, because I think the voters need to have a choice.” Graham is facing an easy Republican primary next month, so Ravenel is likely to get his wish. Ravenel told Mother Jones that he’s consulting venders and preparing efforts to collect the 10,000 signatures he’ll need to get on the ballot. During the course of the show’s first season—a show that, per Bravo, “goes behind the walls of Charleston, South Carolina’s most aristocratic families to reveal a world of exclusivity, money and scandal that goes back generations” and drew, on average, 1.1 million viewers per episode—Ravenel has consistently described himself as a fiscally conservative and socially moderate libertarian. He’s an acolyte of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.): against Obamacare, opposed to foreign interventions, but pro-gay marriage and in favor of ending the war on drugs. “The government should be limited, small, and should stay out of both the bedrooms and our boardrooms,” he says in one episode.
Ravenel, 51 years old with a chiseled jaw and slicked-back hair straight out of central casting for a Southern politician, has good reason to hope that voters aren’t overly concerned with what goes on in peoples’ bedrooms. But he wasn’t always controversial. A multimillionaire land developer and son of a former US House member, Ravenel first tried his hand at politics in 2004 when he ran in the Republican primary for an open Senate seat. He came in third, missing the runoff vote by 1 point behind the eventual winner, Jim DeMint. In 2006 he was elected treasurer of South Carolina.
His term in office didn’t last long. By June 2007 he was indicted on federal charges for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. (He wasn’t selling, he tells Mother Jones, just offering to friends when he was using it a couple of times per month: “I shared it because I didn’t want to be a stingy guy who used it but didn’t give it back,” he says, noting that he “never even bought an eight-ball.”) Then-Gov. Mark Sanford (R) suspended Ravenel immediately, and he resigned from office shortly thereafter. At the time, Ravenel was also working as Rudy Giuliani’s state campaign chairman. Facing 20 years in jail and a $1 million fine, Ravenel accepted a plea deal to serve 10 months in prison and pay a $250,000 fine (he spent the last three months of that sentence on house arrest at his mother’s retirement home). He again ran afoul of the law when he faced drunk-driving charges in 2013, though that only resulted in a six-month suspension of his driver’s license and a small fine.
Looking to reenter public life, and perhaps in order to explain away his past digressions, he signed up for Bravo’s Southern Charm, which premiered in early March and ended its first season last week. It’s an ensemble cast, but Ravenel—who goes by T-Rav—is the clear center of attention. “It portrayed me accurately,” Ravenel tells Mother Jones, “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
From the start of the first episode, the show paints Ravenel as a drunken cad on the prowl. “Thomas is great at hitting on girls,” is how his friend Whitney introduces him. (Whitney, a 45-year-old man, moves out of his mother’s mansion late in the season into a downtown condo that he terms “the stabbin’ cabin.”) Ravenel is unabashed about his past indiscretions. “I didn’t have a problem with cocaine,” he jokes in one scene. “What I realized later was I just really liked the smell of it.”
In one episode, following a day of playing polo—the field cost Ravenel $1 million, he says on the show—and an evening of drinking, he encourages guests at his 60-acre plantation to skinny-dip with him (Ravenel keeps his trousers on when he jumps in the water). In another, he has a seafood lunch with his dad, Arthur Ravenel, a US congressman from 1987-95 and the younger Ravenel’s idol. When Arthur (who notably once referred to the NAACP as the “National Association for Retarded People” at a 2000 pro-confederate-flag rally) plops down $5 for the tip, the elder politician jokes that he’s happy to rid his wallet of a bill with President Abraham Lincoln’s face on it.
But perhaps the most damaging thing that happened on the show was Ravenel’s relationship with Kathryn Dennis, a then-21-year-old descendant of John C. Calhoun. After dealing with a false-alarm pregnancy scare in the wake of their one-night stand early in the season, the two become an on-again, off-again couple, ultimately parting ways by the end of the season. But an epilogue, tagged nine months later, shows Ravenel and Dennis with their newborn daughter, Kensington Calhoun Ravenel, born in March. Ravenel and Dennis have talked about getting married, so stay tuned for developments on that front during this fall’s campaign (or, at least, season two of Southern Charm).
Over the course of the season Ravenel seeks political advice from Will Folks, a South Carolina political blogger most famous for his claims that he had an affair with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R). Folks tells Mother Jones that Ravenel’s rising-star status in the Republican Party made him a target for investigation, and that his “Bulworthesque honesty” is partially blame for his past stumbles. “Other politicians would have evaded and denied and whatever,” he says, “but Thomas literally gave them the rope to hang him.”
Since the show premiered, Ravenel has expressed reservations about the way he was portrayed. “They actually captured where I’m weakest,” Ravenel has said. “In my personal relationships and my personal life.” Nevertheless, he thinks it’s helped repair his image in advance of another political campaign. Talking with Ravenel—who was on vacation with Dennis when he spoke to Mother Jones by phone last Thursday—it’s clear that the show offered a limited misrepresentation of him. Folksy and charming, he’s at ease with discussing his thoughts on the Syrian civil war and the economic benefits of free trade at home. Since leaving jail, he’s become particularly sympathetic to the troubles faced by ex-cons reentering society. “Having gone to prison, I was emancipated from the Republican Party,” he says. Despite South Carolina’s deep-red status, Ravenel thinks there’s room for a libertarian spoiler in the race. “The libertarian brand is appreciating and the conservative brand is depreciating,” he tells Mother Jones.
Ravenel is willing to tap into his wealth to make his political dreams a reality. “I don’t want to spend every dime I have on this run,” he says, “but what I would do is finance the bottom line infrastructure.” He says he’s heard through the grapevine that Graham is worried about his potential campaign, and he’s preparing to gather the signatures he’ll need to get on the ballot to run for the Senate (a spokesperson for Graham’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment). While running for US Senate might seem a little grandiose for an initial political comeback, Ravenel doesn’t have many other options: Thanks to his felony conviction, he’s barred from holding any state office in South Carolina.