The saga of Pug Ravenel still resonates in state politics 

Only in South Carolina

Probably the least surprising thing in this very surprising primary season is that Vic Rawl filed a protest of the June 8 Democratic Senate primary. And why not?

There are still far more questions than answers in the story of Alvin Greene, the 32-year-old unemployed guy who took 60 percent of the vote against the former state legislator, former judge, and current Charleston County Council member. Reason and common sense dictate that a man without a computer or cell phone, without a campaign staff or manager, and with less than $200 in the bank cannot defeat a well-funded, professionally run campaign. So what happened?

Rawl is not alone in his suspicions. The entire Democratic Party leadership and much of the rank and file are seeking answers. The problem with a challenge, of course, is that it is divisive; it is evidence of discontent and disarray within the party. But hey, what's new about that? This is the Democratic Party, after all!

The most famous election challenge this state has seen in living memory occurred in 1974 and derailed what might have been the brilliant political career of Charles "Pug" Ravenel.

Born in 1938, Ravenel was a Charleston native with an old name and from an old neighborhood. He and future Mayor Joe Riley knew each other growing up. Both were good Catholic boys and went to Bishop England, but while Riley went to The Citadel, Ravenel had a full scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, where he quarterbacked the football team. From there it was on to Harvard and another tour as quarterback.

There was a fellowship and world travel and then back to Harvard for an MBA, followed by a very sweet Wall Street job with Donaldson, Lufkin, and Jenrette. In 1966, he was named a White House Fellow and spent a year working as a special assistant in the Treasury Department. He became a politically aware and conscientious Democrat in Washington before returning to Wall Street.

In 1972, Ravenel decided to return to Charleston with his young family, and two years later, he made a fateful decision: He joined six other Democrats in the race for the gubernatorial nomination. Against long odds and the advice of friends and political observers, he put together a sophisticated campaign and television blitz like South Carolina had never seen. At 36, he was the voice of a new generation with new attitudes.

Ravenel vanquished his six rivals in the Democratic primary. Six weeks before the general election, he was leading Republican James Edwards in the polls by 38 percent. Until that moment, the golden boy could do no wrong, but this is when the wheels came off the career of Pug Ravenel.

Disgruntled Democrats challenged his primary victory, saying he had not met the state constitution's five-year residency requirement. The state Supreme Court ruled him ineligible, and the nomination was handed to second-place primary finisher Congressman Bryan Dorn, an old-style politician and the antithesis of Ravenel.

The Democratic Party wrecked itself over the challenge, opening the door for Edwards, who rode through to become the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Republicans have dominated the office ever since.

As for Ravenel, he made the disastrous decision to challenge Strom Thurmond for his Senate seat in 1978 and lost badly. Two years later, he ran against Tommy Hartnett for his 1st District congressional seat and lost again.

That was the end of Ravenel's political career. He next founded a merchant bank with an old high school friend and became a major wheeler-dealer, buying and selling local insurance and real estate companies. But he bottomed out in 1995, when he pleaded guilty in federal court to bank fraud conspiracy. He served 11 months in federal prison. On his last night in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned Ravenel and 139 others.

The Ravenel debacle only hastened the inevitable decline of the Democratic Party in S.C. However, it seems unlikely that Vic Rawl's challenge hurt the party any worse than the nomination of Alvin Greene already has. Last week, the Democrats decided that Greene's primary victory still stands.

In the meantime, it is the GOP gubernatorial candidates who look like they may be headed for a Ravenel-style train wreck. The viciousness exhibited among the candidates, the accusations of adultery hurled at Nikki Haley, and now the runoff between Haley and Gresham Barrett cannot endear the GOP to conservative S.C. voters. This could be the chance for the Democrats to win the governor's mansion by default, as the Republicans did in 1974.

See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.


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