FITS Exclusive - The T-Rav Interview
(Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of exclusive FITS' interviews ... stay tuned for additional one-on-ones throughout Decision 2006)
FITS’ girl Heather S. had the rare opportunity earlier this week to conduct a telephone interview with Thomas Ravenel, a.k.a. T-Rav, the GOP nominee for State Treasurer and the undisputed hottest man in S.C. Politics (sorry, Sanford).
Armed with a laundry list of hardball questions from Sic Willie and others, we were worried initially that Heather might have a little trouble popping off the more challenging questions.
Turns out she actually popped THE question, right off the bat.
So much for subtlety.
Anyway, in its entire, unedited glory, here is Heather S.’ inaugural FITS' Exclusive Interview with one of the GOP’s rising stars here in South Carolina:
Heather S. – So … my first question. Will you marry me?
Thomas – What’s that?
Heather S. – You heard me, Thomas. I’ve read all the articles about you, I’ve seen your TV commercials and I’m down with it. I mean it. And I don’t care if they do think I’m a trophy wife, I really don’t. I can cook, clean, do the laundry, you name it. So will you marry me?
Thomas – What? (Laughs) How old are you?
Heather S. – Twenty-one.
Thomas – Ahm (Pauses) … I really don’t know what to say to that.
Heather S. – Just say yes.
Thomas – This is a joke, right? Who is this?
Heather S. – Fine, Thomas. Play hard to get. But I’m telling you, you’re missing out.
Thomas – Do I have the wrong number?
Heather S. – Whatever, Thomas. Your loss. You had your chance. Anyway, how’s the campaign going?
Thomas – It’s going great. We had a tremendous response from people all over the state during the primary and the runoff. That’s a testament to the fact that South Carolinians really do want change in this position, and they support the vision for change that we outlined in our campaign. I think the taxpayers are looking for somebody who’s going to bring a business perspective to the Treasurer’s Office, somebody who’ll cut the pork and make sure we’re getting the maximum return on our investments as a state.
Heather S. – We’re not getting that right now?
Thomas – No. We are below mediocre. We are among the worst-performing states in the nation because our assets are undermanaged and poorly diversified. We are getting substandard returns because we’re not properly assessing risk and engaging the market’s potential.
Heather S. – Can you say that in English, Thomas? I’m a little bit blonde.
Thomas – Sure, we aren’t managing the taxpayers’ money very well right now and that’s something I’m going to fix as Treasurer.
Heather S. – By putting more money into the stock market?
Thomas – That would be one part of it, but what I’m talking about is a broader diversification - one that would include other investments like commercial-backed mortgages, global funds and real estate investments, to name a few. Historically, even during economic downturns you get a much higher rate of return out of well-diversified investments than you do out of bonds. South Carolina was the last state in the nation to get into the equity market, and we happened to get in right when the technology bubble was bursting. Some people feel that is an excuse to stay out, but I like to look at the numbers because my experience in business has been that numbers don’t lie. Well-diversified investments simply outperform more narrow, static investments.
Heather S. – So what’s wrong with what we’re doing now again?
Thomas – Well for starters it isn’t working. South Carolina’s pension fund - which includes everybody - teachers, police officers, government workers, everybody - we rank 97 out of 100 among the nation's large pension funds. We are seventy percent below the national average. If we could just get up to mediocre, that would mean literally billions of additional dollars. If we were just average, I mean, not even good let alone great at getting a return on our investment, we could solve our unfunded liability problem. We have to diversify and manage for success, we can’t continue to take the same old, short-term approach to the problem and keep making reactionary decisions, we have to make smart decisions that are in the long-term best interests of the people of South Carolina with the money they have entrusted us to manage.
Heather S. – So our retirement system basically sucks. Is that what your saying?
Thomas – We have billions of dollars right now in unfunded liability in our retirement system. It’s an actuarial disaster. Part of the solution I support is reforming that system in a way that keeps the promises we’ve made to retirees but doesn’t make any additional promises our wallets won't be able to keep. But, another part of the solution is actually moving more of the money we do have in the system into better, more diversified investments where we see a higher rate of return. That’s what business does, why shouldn’t government?
Heather S. – But wouldn’t that actually be weakening the power of the Treasurer’s office?
Thomas – It would reduce the amount of money over which the Treasurer has direct investment control, but it would strengthen the earning potential and help ensure the long-term solvency of our retirement fund. I’m perfectly willing to make that tradeoff.
Heather S. – This isn’t the only area where you want to diminish the Treasurer’s role. Don’t you support making this an office that would be appointed by the governor instead of elected independently by the voters every four years?
Thomas – I think doing that would actually strengthen the office, not diminish it, because it would make it a part of a coordinated Executive Branch that’s working together and not one that is working at odds with itself. What if President Bush, for example, walked into a Cabinet meeting one day and found Ted Kennedy as his Secretary of Treasury, or say John Kerry as his Vice-President, or Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State? That is what we have in South Carolina right now, and it isn’t doing the taxpayer any good. It’s no way to run a state in the 21st Century.
Heather S. – But people like to vote. I like to vote. Why are you going to disenfranchise me?
Thomas – This would make the offices you do vote for count for something, and if anything went wrong you would know exactly who to call. That’s accountability, someplace where the buck actually stops. The way we spread all of these elected offices around right now, we make it next to impossible for them to do the people’s business efficiently.
Heather S. – Well aren’t you just a restructuring freak. Don’t you also favor doing away with the Budget and Control Board?
Thomas – We are the only state in the country that has a Budget and Control Board and it basically means where we need accountability the most, we don’t have it. Instead of someone who can stand up and say ‘the buck stops here,’ we’ve got this five-headed monster that answers to nobody, is accountable to nobody and just happens to be in charge of most of the administrative functions of government. Who is Frank (Budget and Control Board Executive Director) Fusco's boss? He doesn't even know that. That’s not real accountability in my book.
Heather S. – But isn’t it kind of cool that we’re the only state that has one? I mean, isn’t it like we can say to all of the other states, ‘Hey, we’ve got one and the rest of you don’t?’
Thomas – I don’t think it’s ever good to waste the people’s money, and the Budget and Control Board as it is configured right now results in a lot of waste, inefficiency and duplication in government.
Heather S. – You sound a lot like Mark Sanford when you say that. Come to think of it, wouldn’t you just be another rubber stamp on the Budget and Control Board for the governor’s limited government agenda?
Thomas – Absolutely not, although I do believe in limited government. I’ll tell you who I would be a rubber stamp for, though, and that would be the average taxpayer who’s basically sick and tired of getting jerked around by government. I agree with Mark Sanford on a lot of things, and when he’s right, I’ll vote with him. I agree with our State Comptroller General, Richard Eckstrom, on a lot of things, and when he’s right, I’ll vote with him. I also agree with Hugh Leatherman and Dan Cooper on a lot of things, and when they’re right, I’ll vote with them. I care about protecting the taxpayers, and I’ll do that whether I’m voting alone or voting unanimously with the other board members. It has to be – I mean – for me it will be about the issues in front of me and how they affect the taxpayer and the bottom line, not the politics or the personalities behind the issue.
Heather S. – Of course it really doesn’t matter all that much how you’ll vote, does it, because you’ll only be there two years, right? I mean this is a stepping stone, isn’t it? Everybody knows you’re going to run against Lindsey Graham for the U.S. Senate in 2008, aren’t you?
Thomas – You know, what I find to be really interesting about all of this, you know, talk, is that one of the only people – maybe the only person in politics - that isn’t talking about what Thomas Ravenel might do in the future is Thomas Ravenel. I read the papers and I’m serious when I say that. Practically the only person who is focused on the issues on the table with respect to this job - not all the political talk and speculation - is me. Look, if I don’t do a good job as Treasurer, if I don’t do what I say I’m going to do or if I turn around and do things I said I wouldn’t do - what happens? Nothing. Because I would have nothing to run on in the future. I wouldn’t be able to run for dogcatcher, let alone U.S. Senate, or the Governor’s Office or anything else that might be on the horizon.
Heather S. – But will you finish your term, if elected? That's the question.
Thomas – I’ll finish the job.
Heather S. – But don’t you think it costs you politically by not committing to a full term? Don’t you think Grady will use it against you?
Thomas – Well I promise I won’t serve eight out of the next nine terms, how’s that?
Heather S. – Okay, fair enough. But since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about you and Lindsey Graham. What’s your problem with him? He’s a nice guy, isn’t he?
Thomas – Sure he’s a nice guy, and I don’t have a problem with him at all on a personal level. We have some major policy disagreements, though, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about those disagreements because it helps advance the debate.
Heather S. – You know, I think you and Lindsey should just ‘hug it out,’ like they do on the TV show Entourage. Have you ever seen that show? It’s fabulous.
Thomas – I’ve heard of it. I don’t get to watch as much TV these days as I used to. Campaigning and everything, down-time is a lot harder to find.
Heather S. – You obviously worked hard. You nearly won the primary vote outright, in fact the second and third place finishers in the GOP race, Greg Ryberg and Rick Quinn, backed out because they knew they couldn’t beat you. But then a funny thing happened, the fourth-place finisher, Jeff Willis, decided to stay in the race and you not only didn’t attack him for it, you actually debated him. Why? I mean, politically wasn’t that kind of stupid?
Thomas – I don’t think so. I have a lot of respect for all three of those guys but especially for Jeff. He got into the race for the right reasons, you remember, his family had been burned by the Carolina Investors scandal, so I felt he had a right to stay in it and a right to have his voice heard.
Heather S. – But why debate him? You didn’t have to do that. You were going to win anyway.
Thomas – Well, politically, it probably was not what most people would have done, but it was the right thing to do. People deserve debates, and I’m looking to forward to a vigorous debate of the issues now that we are in the general election.
Heather S. – Thomas, are you kidding? A debate against Grady? He’s Grandpa Simpson! There’s no way in hell they’re going to let him debate! Trav Robertson they might let debate, but not Grady.
Thomas – Well, maybe I would debate him. We’ll have to wait and see.
Heather S. – You’d debate Trav Robertson? Would the media even let him do that? And if they did, would he even be able to see over the podium?
Thomas – We’ll see. I don’t know if I would debate him or not. I haven’t decided yet. I do know that the voters deserve a fair and full debate of the issues between Mr. Patterson and myself, in some form or another.
Heather S. – Ah, we see that Thomas, we notice you called him Mr. Patterson. That’s nice. You’re showing respect. Did it ever occur to you that showing respect might not be the best campaign strategy? Didn’t the guys who showed respect to Thurmond and Hollings for their “years of service” all get their butts kicked on election day? How are you going to keep that from happening to you? What if he starts messing you around like Reagan did to Dukakis? What if he calls you a whippersnapper?
Thomas – Look, Thurmond and Hollings were getting things done for South Carolina, right up until their last day in office. I don’t think Mr. Patterson is getting it done for South Carolina, whether it’s (seen) in our meager return on investments, our unfunded liabilities, our addiction to new spending or the loss of our Triple-A credit rating. It has nothing to do with age, it has everything to do with performance - or in this case, a lack thereof.
Heather S. – You’re saying our losing the Triple-A credit rating was his fault?
Thomas – He’s statutorily responsible for communicating between the agencies and the state. One day he tells the General Assembly, the Governor, the Comptroller General, everybody – hey, everything is just peachy, then all of a sudden we lose the rating. What happened? And why did he criticize Richard Eckstrom for communicating with the agencies and trying to figure out what was really going on? He’s the Comptroller General, that’s his right.
Heather S. – So the Treasurer is statutorily responsible for the credit rating?
Thomas – The Treasurer is statutorily responsible for managing that communication. It’s in the code.
Heather S. – So if you win, then all of a sudden it’s your responsibility?
Thomas – Correct.
Heather S. – But, I mean, wouldn’t that suck? What if you lost it?
Thomas – We already lost it. I'm going to try to help get it back.
Heather S. – Okay (pauses), now don’t get mad. I have to ask you this. What on earth were you thinking when you said “That’s how I roll. That’s how Thomas Ravenel rolls” to a newspaper reporter? I mean first of all, isn’t it odd to refer to yourself in the third person and second of all, and again please don’t get mad, but are you running for State Treasurer or auditioning for a Snoop Dogg video?
Thomas – (Laughs) I’m not mad. And that’s pretty funny, actually. Well (pauses), I was really - I was just trying to draw a contrast - trying to distinguish between how I handled myself in 2004 by rallying around the winner and how some of the people in the other campaigns handled things this time around, basically doing the opposite. I think I’ll just let that comment stand on its own.
Heather S. – Well, the kids in the blogosphere loved you for it. They ate it up. Some of them even made T-Shirts.
Thomas – This is where everything is happening these days.
Heather S. – The blogosphere? You read political blogs?
Thomas – Sure.
Heather S. – Which ones?
Thomas – Well, I read FITS. That’s why we’re talking right now, isn’t it?
Heather S. – That works for us. In fact, we’re going to have to cut you off right there before you show any love to the competition. But going back to the end of the primary, Ryberg’s campaign manager Terry Sullivan attacked you pretty hard, didn’t he?
Thomas – You know, I guess so. It comes with the territory. I respect the fact that the guy was having a bad day. I don’t hold it against him.
Heather S. – So would you be willing to “hug it out” with Terry Sullivan like you’d be willing to hug it out with Lindsey Graham?
Thomas – Ah (pauses) … No. A handshake, sure. You know, his boss called and apologized the next day, and I even told him, ‘Hey, it's not necessary, I understand' - but that was classy of him. I accepted it and moved on.
Heather S. – So what’s next for your campaign?
Thomas – A lot. We are very busy. At some point I’m going to take a trip up to New York to talk to some different people at the ratings agencies, but for the most part we are just staying focused - getting the message out there and talking to as many different people as we can across the state. I really do believe in this state. We can - I mean, with change - be very competitive. We have the resources, hard-working people - we have everything we need - but we don’t have enough people in positions of influence right now who are looking out for the best interest of the taxpayer. I’m going to be one of those people.
Heather S. – Last question - Will you pretty pretty pretty pretty please marry me?
Thomas – (Silence)
Heather S. – I’m kidding. Thomas, thanks so much, really, for taking the time to chat with us and good luck in November.
Thomas – My pleasure.