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Scott Graber

SC’s General Assembly began to signal Republican resurrection in 90s 

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It is Sunday, early, and it is cold. 

This morning I have my coffee, Green Mountain Breakfast Blend, and a fragile, yellowing newspaper saying “Ravenel Whips Dorn.” The date is April 9,1974. 

In this same paper — called Osceola — there is an advertisement featuring a photo of a young man named Carroll Campbell, a candidate for Lt. Governor. In the copy there is the noun REFORM, but there is nothing saying Carroll Campbell is a Republican. 

In order to understand the connection between Ravenel, Campbell and reform, one must know a little bit about South Carolina politics in the 1970s. In those days power was in the exclusive confines of the South Carolina General Assembly. It was specifically the domaine of a dozen men, white men, who had worked their way into positions of seniority in the South Carolina Senate. These men included Rembert Dennis, Marion Gressette, James Stevens and our own Jimmy Waddell. 

All of these men were old and white and called themselves Democrats. There was no Republican among them, indeed there was no Republican Party of any consequence in South Carolina. One of the few Republicans in South Carolina was Strom Thurmond, previously a Democrat, then a Dixiecrat and finally South Carolina’s kingmaker having delivered Richard Nixon the nomination at the 1968 Republican Convention. 

In 1974 a young man named Charles “Pug” Ravenel returned to South Carolina and announced he would be running for Governor. This was big news because Ravenel had no political experience in Columbia having never been elected to any seat in the South Carolina General Assembly. 

He had grown up in South Carolina and gone off to Harvard where he was quarterback on their football team. After graduation he had gone to Wall Street and had earned some money under the guise of being an investment buyer. 

At 36, Ravenel had none of the experience, or the connections, that any politician had to have if he wanted to reside in the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia. 

But Pug Ravenel could speak. 

He would pepper his speeches with prose from John Fowles and poetry from Archibald McLeish. Ravenel was uniformly critical of the old guard in South Carolina Senate, but he was also aspirational. He described his “impossible dream” of reforming the General Assembly; and by the end of his speech most were willing to walk into “hell for a heavenly cause.” 

It didn’t hurt Ravenel’s primary campaign that his opponent, Congressman Bryan Dorn, was old, overweight and had spent his life in politics. Dorn said the issue was “whether South Carolina was going to be hoodwinked, bamboozled and humbugged by slick Madison Avenue public relations firms or whether we’re going to elect one of our own.” 

In fact, Ravenel hired Marvin Chernoff from Brooklyn, N.Y., to run his South Carolina campaign. Chernoff knew that the traditional way of campaigning — going county to county and getting endorsements from the clerk of court, county council and local chair of the Democratic Party — would not work. So Chernoff designed television spots that projected Ravenel’s charisma (and that of his attractive wife, Mollie) directly into the homes of the voters. 

Chernoff’s campaign worked. 

There was also a question of timing — South Carolinians had a low opinion of the General Assembly — and a new crop of baby-boomer-aged legislators had somehow got their ticket to the State House. These new faces included Dewey Wise (D – Charleston) who proposed an ethics bill that would require members to disclose outside employment and would have required attorney/legislators to reveal their clients. Other new Democrats — including Alex Sanders and Richard Riley — were elected on the promise of changing the way the General Assembly did business. 

But then the old men struck back in the form of a lawsuit alleging that Pug Ravenel was not a South Carolina resident. Notwithstanding an earlier advisory opinion, the Supreme Court found he did not meet the five year residency rule. The balloon of optimism that animated many South Carolina voters evaporated. A Charleston dentist then beat Bryan Dorn in the general election and thus began the rebirth of the GOP in the Palmetto State. 

Although control of the General Assembly would not shift until the 90s, many believe that Carroll Campbell (together with Lee Atwater) engineered the Republican resurrection by bringing evangelicals and “Joe SixPack” into its ranks. Others believe that the majority of those migrating to South Carolina — 84,000 newcomers in 2022 alone — are wealthy, conservative, white and now find their ideological home in the GOP. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com. 

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