Guiding Reince: A Look at Reince Priebus’ Humble Wisconsin Beginnings

He’s never held elective office, yet now Reince Priebus holds one of the nation’s most powerful jobs in Donald Trump’s inner circle. Can a short guy with a funny name make order out of chaos and keep the Trump train surging forward? We take a look back at his early years as Kenosha’s Alex P. Keaton.

Reince Priebus was clearly dispirited. It was November 2004. Priebus, then a young corporate lawyer for a Milwaukee firm, had just lost his first, and so far only, race for public office, running for a state Senate seat in his hometown of Kenosha. The incumbent Democrat, Bob Wirch, managed a four-point win in the toughest race of his Senate career.

To add insult to injury, Priebus had lost his cellphone while collecting one of his campaign signs in a field that morning.

He spent election night with his pal and fellow Republican upstart, Paul Ryan, at what was supposed to be a joint victory party at the Radisson Hotel in Pleasant Prairie. With historically high turnout thanks to the tight presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, returns were slow to come out, and it wasn’t until the wee hours when the race could be called for Wirch.

“He was so dejected,” Ryan says. “I remember giving him pep talks all night, trying to cheer him up.”

Fast forward 12 years, to another election night in November 2016. Instead of the Pleasant Prairie Radisson, Priebus found himself in the posh confines of the New York Hilton Midtown alongside a different newbie candidate giving politics a try. Another late night ended with a shocking result of the opposite sort.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a surprised Priebus pronounced after being called onstage by the candidate, “the next president of the United States, Donald Trump!” The audience erupted. In his victory speech, Trump called the slightly awestruck Republican National Committee chairman “a superstar.” The pair could not be less alike – Trump’s a billionaire son of a millionaire who’s full of bluster and bravado, while Priebus is a blend-into-the-walls son of a Kenosha electrician who just four years earlier warned Republicans that their party’s very existence depended on expanding beyond the old-white-and-angry demographic Trump had just ridden to victory.

Within days, Trump cemented the unlikely political bromance by appointing Priebus his White House chief of staff . The guy whose political career seemed as lost as his cellphone a dozen years ago was about to become one of the nation’s most powerful men, with a West Wing office and a mission-impossible task to guide history’s most inexperienced and impulsive president through the booby traps and razor wire of Washington, D.C., politics.

One thing that hadn’t changed from 12 years ago: Paul Ryan. Now Speaker of the House, he’s working closely with his old Wisconsin pal on moving Trump’s agenda through Congress, now solidly in Republican hands.

Before Priebus, who declined comment for this story, left the RNC for his new post, his office was about a block from Ryan’s, and the two would get together regularly.

“I’d drink Miller Lite; he’d drink High Life,” Ryan says, “and we would just talk about the world’s problems.”

Priebus’ problems took on a new level of prominence in 2016, as he steered the Republican Party through perhaps the rockiest presidential primary season in its history, Trump’s chaotic candidacy and, then, a victory that stared conventional wisdom in the face and laughed.

Priebus cut his political teeth in Republican politics before he had a full set of permanent teeth, coordinating a local outpost of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign operation at Pleasant Prairie Elementary School where Reince was a third-grader. Born Reinhold Priebus – also his grandfather’s name – in Dover, N.J., his unusual name (to pronounce it correctly, think “Pints Freebus”) is a product of his parents’ genetic cocktail. “I would always tell everyone, that’s what happens when you have a German and a Greek for your parents,” Priebus told me in 2011.

Richard Priebus was an electrician. His wife Dimitra, a Greek who grew up in Sudan, was a real estate agent in Kenosha. The family lived in Pleasant Prairie before that still largely rural town became a bedroom community for thousands of Illinois- bound commuters. Their very ordinary white brick ranch house sits at the end of a long driveway.

Priebus’ parents taught him to be aspirational despite their middle-class lot in life.

“I grew up in a place called Kenosha, Wisconsin,” he said at the 2012 Republican National Convention. “My dad was a union electrician, and he retired from the Racine Unified School District. You know, when we drove through the town, he didn’t point to that big, beautiful house on the corner, and my dad didn’t say, ‘Hey, look at these lousy people over here.’ He did what every one of your parents did. He said, ‘Listen up, pal, if you work hard and you go to school, you’re going to be in that house.”

His parents seem to be a case in point:  That property out in the country, where Priebus grew up? Now it’s near a busy intersection of two four-lane highways, next door to a Kwik Trip and on the edge of an industrial park. The six-acre parcel, which Priebus’ parents still own while living primarily in Texas, was on the market in January as a commercial development opportunity, listed for $1.9 million.

Priebus helped resurrect a Young Republicans organization at Tremper High School. This was in the late 1980s, when Kenosha was still a manufacturing center and a union town, where Republicans – and particularly teenaged ones – were decidedly in the minority.

A young Priebus at the school library, left, and in his junior year of high school yearbook shot, right. Photos courtesy of Kenosha Unified School District

The Priebus of this era conjures up images of Alex P. Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.” Priebus carried a briefcase to Lance Junior High School, recalls Chuck Bradley, a right-leaning schoolteacher who taught government and politics at Tremper. Bradley’s daughter was a grade ahead of Priebus. “She knew he was going to be something special at that time,” Bradley says.

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the early 1990s was something of a haven for future Republican leaders.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was studying there, as was Paul Ryan’s longtime chief of staff and senior advisor, Andy Speth, and several other members of Ryan’s present-day staff. Vos was a senior when Priebus arrived as a freshman in 1990. But the two already knew each other from Republican Party activities, and they struck up a friendship that led to them sharing an apartment while Priebus was still an undergraduate and Vos was commuting to his job as a legislative aide in the State Capitol.

The kid made an impression. “He was a guy who could glad-hand a room with the best of them, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. He just had a way of making connections with folks,” Vos says.

Priebus scored a trip as a non-voting delegate to the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. Then 20, he was traveling in a Wisconsin entourage that included a fellow Kenoshan, longtime local party leader John Allen, then 70 and now deceased, a delegate appointed by Gov. Tommy Thompson. The two fellow party members squared off in a Kenosha News story preceding the convention, the relatively moderate Allen calling himself “a freedom of choice person” when it came to abortion, and Priebus calling for the party to maintain its anti-abortion position. “The pro-life issue is helping keep Bush alive” in the polls, Priebus told the newspaper.

The 1992 vintage Priebus spoke of themes in keeping with what he might have said as RNC chairman amid the bluster of the 2016 campaign, calling for a more “managed,” orchestrated convention, where dissent would not be allowed to give the party a black eye on national TV. He had a strong willingness, however, to use the convention as a forum to eviscerate President George H.W. Bush’s opponent. Just as it was in 2016, the 1992 target’s name was Clinton.

“He’s a pot-smoking, draft-dodging philanderer,” Priebus told his hometown newspaper about Bill Clinton.

Priebus’ time at UW-Whitewater, which culminated in a bachelor’s degree in political science and English, was followed by three years at the University of Miami (Fla.) Law School, where he graduated cum laude in 1998.

David Krutz first crossed paths with Priebus during his final year at Miami law. Krutz at the time was a partner at Michael Best & Friedrich in Milwaukee, where Priebus was interviewing for a job. He was impressed with what he saw.

“He was just a remarkably humble but knowledgeable guy when I first met him,” says Krutz, now a managing partner with the firm.

Priebus was hired, and soon, Krutz says, he established himself as a hard-working, skilled litigator. Krutz recalls sending Priebus off to make courtroom arguments that seemed a long shot at best. “He’d come back and say, ‘Hey, I won,’ and we’d be shaking our heads saying, ‘How’d he pull that one off?’ Maybe that was a sign of things to come.”

With the support of Paul Ryan, Priebus became chairman of the 1st Congressional District Republican Party organization in 2001, emerging as a central figure in the successful campaigns of Ryan, former state Sen. Cathy Stepp of Racine County and Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth, the first Republican elected to countywide office there in decades.

Mike Serpe got to know Priebus during this era, when Serpe was chief of staff and lobbyist for then-Kenosha County Executive Allan Kehl.

Priebus, of course, was a Republican; Serpe was and is a staunch Democrat. Still, they became friends, often discussing the need for Priebus to build the local Republican Party from the grassroots, to make members active participants in the political process and, eventually, to begin running qualified, popular people for office in Kenosha County. In Priebus, Serpe saw someone who’s “not as dumb as he looks,” he jokes. “Just because he’s not the most polished speaker doesn’t mean that the wheels aren’t turning in that head all the time.”

In early 2004, I returned to my hometown to work as a reporter at the Kenosha News, and one of the first big assignments I had was to cover that fall’s race between Democratic state Sen. Wirch and an upstart challenger.

On the day Priebus formally announced his campaign, I wrote the story. On the way into work the next morning, I listened as a news anchor on WTMJ radio butchered Priebus’ name, declaring that “Ree-nice Prius” will take on Wirch.

Priebus wasted no time when it came to building his campaign war chest, amassing more than $300,000 through the election cycle. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce poured cash into the race on behalf of Priebus, while the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union, did the same for Wirch.

“The race itself was the toughest I’ve ever had,” Wirch says. “He had two to three times the money that I had, and I was the incumbent. Which shows how he got the position at the RNC. He was always very good at shaking the money tree.”

The campaign was lively – Wirch, a third-generation factory worker who prides himself on shoe-leather campaigning (“out doing doors,” he calls it) versus a young corporate lawyer with a large campaign checkbook. 

“He would point at me and say, ‘The definition of insanity,’” Wirch recalls, “‘would be electing the same person over and over again and expecting a different outcome.’ I said, ‘No, the definition of insanity would be electing a Milwaukee corporate attorney and thinking he’s going to take care of the middle class.’”

Wirch says he sent out some false signals, aiming to make Priebus overconfident about the situation. The Democrat talked with then-County Executive Allan Kehl, a friend of Priebus’, telling Kehl, “Allan, any chance I could get a job with the county?”

In the end, it was a 52-48 Wirch victory, the closest margin in Wirch’s six contested races for Senate to date.

Photo by Jessi Paetzke

After Priebus’ 2004 election defeat, he doubled down on his commitment to Republican Party work, getting himself elected chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin in 2007.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Democrats ran the tables in Wisconsin and nationally in 2006, seizing control of both houses of Congress and the state Senate. President George W. Bush, in his final two years in the White House, was now deeply unpopular. In 2008, it was another clean sweep for Democrats up and down the ballot, riding the coattails of Barack Obama’s message of hope and change.

But then came 2010 and the tea party movement – a renaissance for Republicans who saw a recapturing of Congress and, in Wisconsin, both houses of the Legislature, the governor’s mansion and the U.S. Senate seat that had belonged to Democrat Russ Feingold for 18 years.

The new governor, Scott Walker, credited Priebus with integrating the tea party into the mainstream GOP. Priebus then took his act national, becoming general counsel of the RNC under new chairman Michael Steele in 2009. By 2011, Priebus usurped Steele, winning election as new RNC chairman in a fiercely fought battle.

Priebus quickly won the respect of party officials nationally with a fundraising prowess unseen in previous chairs and his familiar disciplined, no-drama management style. Well after Priebus and his family shipped off to Washington, the RNC chairman maintained a relationship with his hometown, coming back whenever possible for weekends at their home in the town of Somers, just north of the city, and maintaining a monthly gig analyzing politics over the phone on Kenosha radio station WLIP. “It would be funny to see him on a Sunday on ‘Meet the Press’ or ‘Face the Nation,’ and the next morning he would talk to me like just another guy from Somers,” says Bill Lawrence, WLIP host. 

Priebus raised eyebrows in his hometown in the run-up to Scott Walker’s June 2012 recall election when he singled out Kenosha as a hotbed for voter fraud – a claim local election officials were quick to dismiss. “I’m always concerned about voter fraud, you know, being from Kenosha, and quite frankly having lived through seeing some of it happen,” Priebus told reporters in a conference call. Richard Ginkowski, a longtime Kenosha County prosecutor who for years handled election-related complaints, told the Kenosha News voter fraud complaints had been “few and far between.” Priebus also said thanks to voter fraud, Republicans “need to do a point or two better” to win statewide elections in Wisconsin – a claim PolitiFact rated “False.” Priebus has continued to repeat discredited claims of voter fraud, foreshadowing Trump’s fraud allegations to come, part of what won Trump’s campaign 2015 “Lie of the Year” honors from PolitiFact.

The 2012 Republican National Convention went off in Tampa late that August, with Priebus in control of the gavel and Paul Ryan on the stage as the vice-presidential nominee. It was the culmination of what Priebus and Ryan had dubbed the “Cheesehead Resolution,” a conservative movement headlined by three late-30s/early-40s Reagan disciples – who had somehow turned little old Wisconsin, the home of the Progressive movement, into a hotbed for Republican ideology. 

Photo by Jessie Paetzke

America voted a few months later, and it was Barack Obama’s vision that won out handily over that of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Priebus followed up with what he deemed an “autopsy” of the GOP’s shortcomings, calling for comprehensive immigration reform, more tolerance for gay rights and same-sex marriage, and a greater reliance on technology, data collection and polling.

None of these recommendations imagined Donald Trump, the primary candidate who called Mexican migrants drug traffickers and rapists and promised to build a wall along the U.S. border – and make Mexico pay for it.

As Trump rose to the top among the 17 Republican candidates who battled for the nomination, Priebus once again gaveled in a national convention, this time in Cleveland, amid revolt from many within his own party.

Priebus appeared undeterred, telling a CNN interviewer in April, “This is fun,” and promising “I’m not pouring Baileys in my cereal” – a line that CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert lampooned as “a very specific reference for something you are not doing, sir.”

Priebus continued through his summer and fall of damage control, becoming a frequent flier to Trump Tower and a confidant of Trump’s before the next ticket on Priebus’ unlikely political journey was punched. Will the chaos and infighting of Trump’s early days have Priebus reaching for the Baileys?

“He’s working with a loose cannon there,” says longtime nemesis Bob Wirch. “Good luck on that, being a mouthpiece for a loose cannon.” ◆ 

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” March 9 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Guiding Reince’ appears in the March, 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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