When Charles D. Ravenel was a spunky, 149-lb. quarterback for Harvard 15 years ago (left), they called him “Charley the Gambler.” He scrambled fearlessly through tacklers and led his teams to a string of startling upsets. Now 36, Ravenel pulled the political equivalent of a quarterback sneak last month in South Carolina when, in his first pass at politics, he out-feinted two favored opponents to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He is now the odds-on choice to be South Carolina’s next governor and the latest addition to the Democratic party’s coterie of young, progressive chief executives in the South.
Before the primary, “Pug” Ravenel’s chances of winning looked about as good as a Confederate dollar. His primary rivals were two experienced politicians: Representative William Jennings Bryan Dorn, 58, a veteran of 26 years in Congress, and Earle E. Morris Jr., 46, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor. Though the bearer of one of Charleston’s oldest names, Ravenel is the son of a sheet-metal worker who had expatriated himself for 15 years in the North—first at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard on scholarships and then on Wall Street with a prestigious investment banking firm. His candidacy was further imperiled because, even though he, his wife Molly, and their three children had moved back to Charleston in 1972, he had not lived in the state for the previous five years, as required by the state constitution.
With the same derring-do he had shown on the gridiron, Ravenel decided to go flat out. He took a $30,000 mortgage on his house to get his campaign started and then borrowed $200,000 more to keep it moving. Disdaining billboard and direct-mail advertising, he sunk virtually all of his funds into slickly produced TV spots. “It was gambling, gambling, gambling, all the way,” he says now. “I told Molly when we married I wanted to live life fully, to risk everything on glorious success or complete failure. I pushed my family’s financial security right out into the middle of the table and said, ‘Let it ride.’ ”
The gamble paid off. Two days before an election deadline, a state judge ruled that Ravenel’s absence from the state had been only temporary, and that he was indeed an eligible candidate. South Carolina’s voters then responded enthusiastically, giving him a narrow victory over Dorn and Morris in the primary and a 55-45% margin over Dorn in the July 30 runoff.
“We simply refused to accept the conventional wisdom that the primary is always controlled by the establishment,” explains the ever-cocksure Ravenel. “We felt a fresh face, honestly communicated to the voters by an innovative media campaign, could pull it off. And we were right.”