Eight lanes and eight decades of perspective

By Sara Ravenel

Although Arthur Ravenel, Jr., has one of Charleston’s most iconic landmarks named after him, this massive testimony to some of man’s finest engineering is not the accomplishment of which he is most proud. As with so much about this man, known to many simply as “Cousin Arthur,” he marches to his own drummer and defies a simple explanation.


After 32 years of holding political offices and a recent retirement, the 86-year-old Charleston native and my grandfather, Arthur Ravenel, Jr., sat down with me for a candid interview about reflections on his career, his thoughts on current issues and leaders and his post-political life.

A man of many offices and accomplishments A politician has a tough job. One must try and make decisions that are best for his constituents, and his country. However, it is nearly impossible to please everybody, and politicians can — easily and often — be regarded as people who fail at their job. Despite the adversity one faces in his line of work, Arthur Ravenel, Jr., was able to accomplish enough to satisfy the careers of two politicians. Here are some of his proudest moments.

Q&A in brief

Mercury: If you had to name one piece of legislation or constituent issue that was most rewarding on a state level, what would it be?

Ravenel: The most rewarding was a little amendment that I put in the appropriation bill one night as it was going through the State Senate to assign, I think, 25 percent of a real estate fee to the Heritage Trust Foundation for property acquisition only.

Mercury: Why was this so important?

Ravenel: Well, I had been appointed to be on the Heritage Trust advisor board, but the problem they (the Heritage Trust) had was that they didn’t have any money to buy property. So this amendment helped to give them some income.

Mercury: What was the result of the amendment?

Ravenel: It has resulted in the state being able to buy and preserve right at 100,000 acres of land. That tiny amendment really has done more than any other single thing that I have been able to do.

Mercury: Now on a federal level, what was your biggest accomplishment?

Ravenel: I think working with Senator Hollings to get legislation passed for environmental additions to the national forest. We would work together; he would get it through the Senate and then, as the congressman from that district, and I would get it through the House.

Mercury: Did you two work together on any other major projects?

Ravenel: Well, the bridge of course. He was constantly appropriating money to replace the old Cooper River bridges and I would get those through the House, too. So when we got to building the bridge, he principally with my assistance, had gotten the highway department about $100 million for the project, so we had a good start.

Mercury: Are you happy with how everything with the bridge turned out?

Ravenel: Yes, I am really happy with it, and I think that everyone, all the major stakeholders, got what they wanted, too.

Senate v. school board days

Ravenel served in the S.C. House, S.C. Senate, U.S. Congress and then the Charleston County School Board. He enjoyed serving the State Senate the most.

“It has a great atmosphere, which is enhanced by soft Southern voices. It is a place where one can work across the aisle to get things done, because of the cordial relationship between Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

On the contrary, the school board did not share this friendly atmosphere. Ravenel notes that serving on the school board was the “roughest and toughest” part of his career. He noted that, “no one is ever happy on the school board, and you have to listen to a lot of complaining.”

Conservation and I-526

Ravenel has a great deal of experience and knowledge about road planning, thanks to his involvement with the planning and building of the bridge. This knowledge gives him valuable insight into the I-526 controversy. The former congressman said, “I don’t have any great feelings one way or the other, but I think County Council has bitten off a lot more than they can chew.”

He notes that if the current proposed project ever becomes a reality, it would probably be more costly to build than the new Cooper River Bridge, and that County Council is in to face a whole mess of permitting problems. Ravenel advocates a continuation of the Betsy Kerrison parkway, saying it can be accomplished “relatively quickly.” He’s in opposition to the Cross Island parkway, saying it would “really destroy Johns Island.” Current politics Even though Ravenel has stepped away from the political ring, he is still willing to offer up some advice, particularly to the GOP on how they should handle the upcoming midterm elections.

His advice does not concern policy points or positions to take on certain issues, but rather it is more of a grasp of the essentials. Ravenel merely advises that the GOP “nominate candidates who are aggressive, charismatic and, above all, capable. You’ve got to have candidates who people just naturally like; that’s who you vote for.” In respect to the rising stars of the party, Ravenel mentioned both Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, and funny man Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, to be among his favorites. He noted Christie’s good sense of humor as being a real asset to him. “You need a good sense of humor to be a politician; it’s something essential. Reagan had it. He had a great sense of humor,” he said.

His heroes

A hero to many local politicians in his own right, Ravenel also has some of his own. He divulged that he has great admiration for President Ronald Reagan and pointed out a picture of them together that he has proudly hanging in his office. Although Reagan is near the top of his list, Ravenel asserted that it is Great Britain’s “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, who is his favorite politician. “I just really loved that lady,” he said, “she once said, ‘the problem with socialism is that sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money,’ that’s a really accurate statement and shows the importance of democracies.” Though Baroness Thatcher might hold the top spot on his list, he also spoke of his affinity for Winston Churchill and then of his personal friend, the late Senator Strom Thurmond. Ravenel learned from Thurmond the importance of constituent service and said that Thurmond had “the best constituent service of any politician I ever knew, and he selected staff who were really good at it.”

Ravenel defines constituent service as “taking care of your people.” “When you get elected to a public office, regardless of what it is, you have to realize many, many people out there are hurting one way or the other and that they want help or sometimes just advice and you need to make yourself and your staff available to them.” Ravenel stressed this idea of helping your people as an important part of every politician’s job, saying “those office holders who don’t give very good constituent service, don’t last very long.”

Does he miss politics?

After a 32-year political career, Ravenel officially retired in 2010 when he announced he would not seek re-election for his seat on the school board. Of retirement, Ravenel said he loves it.

“I don’t miss anything (about politics),” he laughed, “because I’ve had my fill and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” His days are now spent just enjoying life. His large family keeps him busy and he now has more time to spend with his 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Besides being with his family, the jovial raconteur also spends much of his time enjoying the outdoors, particularly at his farm, a private inholding of the Francis Marion National Forest. Here, surrounded by nature, Ravenel’s longtime interest in conservation bears fruit to his eyes as he looks around and reflects on a life of service.

Sara Ravenel is a rising senior at Ashley Hall.

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