It was a lovely spring day in Charleston and, among the people gathered at the Church Street mansion, there was little doubt that Thomas Ravenel had arrived.
The occasion, as usual, was politics. The newly elected state treasurer stood in his $3 million downtown home chatting with a man who could be the next president of the United States, while the room was filled with Republican movers and shakers — including the host's legendary father, former congressman and state Sen. Arthur Ravenel Jr.
As he introduced former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, it was clear that Thomas Ravenel had come a long way from his days as a student — and "not a very good" one, by his own admission — at St. Andrews High School.
At 44, the well-known bachelor was a self-made millionaire, a national developer of shopping centers and the South Carolina GOP's brightest star.
Some of the faithful had even begun to talk openly about something that, just a few years ago, would have been heresy: Ravenel challenging a sitting Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, in 2008.
But all that changed June 19 when U.S. Attorney Reginald Lloyd announced that a federal grand jury had indicted Ravenel on one count of conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute.
Within an hour, Gov. Mark Sanford suspended Ravenel from office and the treasurer dropped out of sight, his lawyer telling family and friends not to talk about the case. Now, the man whose star
was shining so bright just weeks ago is facing the end of his political career and a possible prison sentence.
"Until (last) Tuesday, he was the party's rising star," said Mark Hartley, former Charleston County Republican Party chairman. "A lot of folks in politics come up through the law ranks. Thomas' background in business gave him some unique assets."
Many friends and political observers say Ravenel's meteoric business and political rise is as fascinating as his downfall is sad and shocking.
Born Aug. 11, 1962, Ravenel is the youngest of Arthur Ravenel Jr.'s six children. Friends say his Lowcountry childhood had its problems — he lived through his parents' divorce much like an only child. Most of his older siblings weren't around the family's 19th-century home in West Ashley; his closest brother, William, had Down syndrome and went away to school.
In a 2004 interview, Ravenel — who could not be reached for comment for this story — said that he was "sort of wild" during his high school years, rudderless without an overabundance of parental guidance. Even he called himself a "partyer."
His father attempted to instill discipline in him by offering The Citadel as the only choice for college. Despite his high-school-era rebellion, Ravenel took to the military college, and its rigorous curriculum, well. A member of November Company, he became a wrestler for the Bulldogs and a business administration major.
"He was a darn good cadet," said Harry Dick, a member of The Citadel board of visitors and assistant commandant of cadets when Ravenel was a student. "He never got into real trouble. They all get into mischief; they all walk tours. But he was just a good cadet athlete."
Finding his niche
After he graduated in 1985, Ravenel wandered aimlessly for a while, working alternately as a carpenter, handyman, lawn mower, painter, landscaper. He ran for the state House, his first foray into the politics he'd grown up around, but didn't win.
It soon turned around for Ravenel when he got his real estate license. He began selling houses and land — "whatever I could," Ravenel said in 2004. He borrowed money from his father to get an MBA at the University of South Carolina in 1991, then started the Ravenel Development Corp. It was a success, allowing him to quickly repay his father.
During the next decade, Ravenel developed 60 shopping centers in 10 states, beginning with buildings to house Advance Auto Parts stores. He became a business landlord and learned a lot about banking. He started building grocery stores. The only thing his businesses had in common was that they made money.
"He was an outstanding developer and businessman," said Bob Miller, a family friend, political supporter and fellow developer. "He really is self-made. He was hard-nosed and tough, but it was good to do business with him. Everybody made money."
He was deep into his business but still found time to play. Miller remembers Ravenel showing up at Patriots Point Golf Course with buddies from The Citadel. They'd play a round, then stop in the clubhouse for a beer and bull. It was his lifestyle: work hard, play hard.
First political victory
Everything was running along smoothly for Ravenel, and then U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings announced in 2003 that he would be retiring at the end of his term.
Ravenel seemingly came out of nowhere with his campaign for the Republican nomination for Senate. On the stump, he sounds more like a wonk than his famous father, best-known for his environmentalism and stance in favor of the Confederate battle flag. Hartley said it was Ravenel's business acumen that made him so popular among the party. His name didn't hurt, either.
Still, there were some who weren't fans. Ravenel had seemingly bought his way onto the party's first string.
"There were detractors who said he didn't pay his dues within the party," Hartley said. "He wasn't out there registering voters or working the polls or putting up signs. But he had also supported the party financially, and he showed up at all the events."
Ravenel spent about $3 million of his own cash and ended up a few thousand votes shy of the Republican runoff. Hartley noted that a swing of 3,000 votes statewide would have made Ravenel a senator.
After the election, Ravenel suggested his interest in politics was over; he was only interested in the U.S. Senate, and those only come open "every 30 or 40 years."
And that appeared to be that — until rumors surfaced in early 2006 that Ravenel might run for state treasurer. Most political observers aren't sure whether it was his idea or he was convinced to run by supporters who might have wanted him to get some statewide political experience before moving on to bigger pastures.
Last year, Ravenel ran roughshod through the Republican primary, causing his nearest competitor — Sen. Greg Ryberg — to drop out of the race rather than face two more weeks of expensive campaigning in a runoff. Ravenel went on to defeat veteran Treasurer Grady Patterson by a 52 percent-48 percent margin.
While most friends and political acquaintances say they are shocked by the charges that he was using drugs, it was no secret Ravenel knew how to have a good time.
Before and after the election, he was often spotted on the nightlife scene at Blossom, Raval, Meritage. During the legislative session, Columbia hosts the same scene every night, and Ravenel was no stranger to it. But most supporters and friends say they have never considered him anything more than a social drinker.
"My experience with Thomas was always that I could never get him to shut up about politics and policy," said Will Folks, who served as a political consultant on Ravenel's 2006 campaign. "I can recall on several occasions meeting him out for a beer on a Saturday afternoon — even then he was totally obsessed with talking policy and politics. I never once saw anything resembling the kind of behavior he's been accused of, nothing even close."
Since taking office, Ravenel has kept a fairly low political profile. He filed Giuliani's papers for the presidential primary and showed up a couple of times to lobby the General Assembly to change the law requiring him to keep Saturday office hours in the treasurer's office, one of the outdated mandates in the state constitution.
Several people who know Ravenel say that he had begun to complain that the treasurer's job was "boring" — and there are few who dispute it. The U.S. Senate it's not.
The question that lingers for Ravenel's friends and supporters is how this could have happened. If the charges are true — and some aren't convinced that they are — how could Ravenel have accomplished so much while abusing hard drugs?
Miller, who was there watching Ravenel entertainingly introduce Giuliani at the spring reception, said the treasurer seemed like a man on top of his game.
"If he was on drugs six weeks ago, it didn't look like it to me," Miller said.
GOP's fallen star
For now Ravenel has dropped off the radar, and isn't expected to surface before his July 9 arraignment in Columbia. He wasn't arrested because he isn't considered a flight risk, Lloyd's office said — a common policy.
In the wake of these charges, the state party has backed away from their former golden boy. It's a far cry from a few months ago, when they were banking on Ravenel challenging Graham. Although Ravenel said he wouldn't run, he had also stoked the fires, once calling Graham the third senator from New York.
Although they might be surprised by how quickly some political allies have disappeared, Ravenel's friends and supporters are most devastated and incensed by comments by a Democratic Party official who called the treasurer a "spoiled rich kid" turned "common street criminal."
The truth is, they say, Thomas Ravenel is a self-made man who has done much with his life. And now, his future is in doubt. He faces a $1 million fine and up to 20 years in prison if convicted. And no matter if he is ultimately acquitted of the charges, the indictment has almost certainly ended Ravenel's dreams of a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Most of his friends and supporters won't talk about Ravenel or the charges against him. Some of them characterize it as "stunned silence."
"Nobody's mad," Hartley said. "We're disappointed."
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