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Reince Priebus: from Tremper High School to the national stage

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Updated

BY JOE POTENTE

jpotente@kenoshanews.com


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Reince Priebus will soon pick up stakes and move his wife and two children from Somers to Washington as he leads the Republican National Committee for the next two years.

But, Priebus assures, they’ll be back.

Priebus, who grew up in Pleasant Prairie, said the Kenosha area remains near and dear to him — a hometown he plans to readopt after he completes his mission of getting a Republican elected to the White House in 2012.

The 38-year-old former chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin assumed the chairmanship of the RNC on Jan. 14, after a high-profile battle against former Chairman Michael Steele, the man Priebus helped elect to the post just two years earlier.

In a telephone interview with the Kenosha News on Friday, his first since obtaining his new position, Priebus said he ran for the job because he felt the RNC needed a chairman who understands how to maximize the relationship between the national and state parties, to make the greatest possible gains for Republicans in 2012.

“I think that our country is in a battle for freedom right now, and we needed somebody to lead at the RNC who understands that the first and foremost thing that was needed here was a chairman who would be functional and operational in this building,” Priebus said. “Meaning, a chairman that understood that we needed to build the finances of the RNC in order to combat Barack Obama’s billion-dollar war chest that he’s going to accumulate.”

While Republicans had great success nationally last fall, Priebus said the party organization has tremendous debts, unpaid obligations and credibility problems with its major donors and grassroots operators.

Steele, who was maligned by the GOP faithful for his propensity for rhetorical gaffes and his frivolous stewardship of the party’s checkbook, was a close associate of Priebus going into his two-year term in 2009.

“Well, now times are different,” Priebus said, explaining what changed since then. “We had great victories; we have a party that needs to raise money; we have a party that needs help on the nuts-and-bolts operation of the building.

“And we have GOP stars all over the place that are speaking to conservative issues every single day.”

Young Republican

Priebus’ interest in Republican Party politics dates back to his youth.

Charles Bradley, a retired teacher of government and politics at Tremper High School, remembers Priebus as a student and a member of a short-lived Young Republicans group at the school in the late 1980s.

Bradley, himself a Republican supporter, even remembers Priebus as a teen showing up at Kenosha County GOP meetings in Paddock Lake.

“He was quite a go-getter; he was great,” Bradley said. “He was just a young man who I always thought was just kind of destined to achieve the goals he had set for himself.”

From high school, Priebus moved on to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he became student body president, a member of the College Republicans and a friend and roommate of future state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

As a college student in 1992, Priebus was a non-voting delegate to the Republican National Convention in Houston.

In their college days, Vos said he never doubted Priebus would be very successful employing a strong combination of intellect and hard work. State Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Randall, a Whitewater alumna from the same era, has similar recollections of Priebus.

Later, as Vos himself became a politician, he said he watched Priebus readily dig into whatever was the task at hand, be it posting lawn signs, raising campaign money or organizing grassroots operations.

“No job is too small for him to work on,” Vos said. “And I think, in his mind, no job is too big for him to tackle.”

Rising lawyer

In order to serve out his new role at the RNC, Priebus is setting aside at least temporarily a successful career as a lawyer.

Admitted to partner status at the prominent Milwaukee firm of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP in 2006, Priebus handles corporate litigation, trust and estates and government and municipal law. In 2008, he was named a “Rising Star” by Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine — an honor given to selected attorneys younger than 40.

Priebus said he is not yet sure where his career will take him after his stint at the RNC is over. He said he has always been attracted to political work because he is interested in “playing a small role in a battle for freedom.”

“Playing a small role turned into a pretty big role,” Priebus said. “And now I have the awesome responsibility of leading this party out of a financial mess and leading us to victory with a presidential nominee in 2012.”

Wisconsin key

While his focus will be national in scope, Priebus said his home state will be a key to realizing the victory he’s seeking.

“Wisconsin will be a target state because Wisconsin has historically been a microcosm of the rest of the country,” Priebus said.

Priebus said Republicans will continue to see success because voters remain worried about the economy and “crushing deficits” — a phrase he uses often.

As for what he believes it will take to defeat Obama next year, Priebus said Republicans need to just continue talking about getting the nation’s fiscal house in order, taxes and the effect they have on the economy and how to create jobs.

“I think that if we continue to govern as we have campaigned, the Republicans will do very well in 2012,” Priebus said.

More about Reince Priebus

Born: March 18, 1972, in Dover, N.J.; moved to Kenosha early in grade school

Family: Married wife Sally in 1999. Two children: Jack, 6, and Grace, 1. Parents: Richard and Roula Priebus, of Pleasant Prairie.

Education: Attended Pleasant Prairie Elementary, Lance Junior High and Tremper High schools. Graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1994 and the University of Miami School of Law in 1998.

Career: Admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1998; partner attorney with Michael Best & Friedrich in Milwaukee, specializing in corporate, government and municipal law.

Political resume: Republican National Committee chairman, Jan. 14-present; RNC general counsel, 2009-10; Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman, 2007-2011; former Wisconsin 1st Congressional District Republican chairman and legislative staffer; unsuccessful candidate against state Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, in 2004.

Political mentors: Paul Ryan, Scott Walker and Tommy Thompson.

History of his unusual name: “It’s a German name,” explained Priebus. “I would always tell everyone, that’s what happens when you have a German and a Greek for your parents. It’s a clash of cultures, you could say.”

Favorite in the Super Bowl race between swing states Wisconsin and Pennsylvania: “Without question, I’m a Green Bay Packer fanatic. From every square inch of my body, I’m a Packer fan, without any hesitation or question.”

Reince Priebus then

— as a 20-year-old, non-voting delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1992:

“We need to start focusing on what Bill Clinton is all about. He’s a pot-smoking, draft-dodging philanderer.”

Reince Priebus now

— as the 38-year-old chairman of the Republican National Committee:

“I think that Republicans will do very well in Wisconsin because, at the end of the day, people are fiscal conservatives in Wisconsin, and the issues that are affecting politics today are fiscal issues that people are very concerned about. They’re concerned about the crushing deficits, concerned about runaway taxes and about a president that wants to force government-run health care on the backs of every American.”

What others say about Priebus:

“I have worked with (Reince) for a number of years and the pickup of governor, senator, two House seats and control of the state House and Senate was a profound victory in a historically difficult state.”

— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

“Reince was involved in my campaign from the beginning. He planned and executed a massive grassroots operation in Wisconsin that was one of the best in the nation. … The Republican Party in this state has allowed someone like me, a citizen legislator, to actually step up and have a chance at victory. Thank you, Reince Priebus, for all you’ve done.”

— U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

“Under the leadership of Reince Priebus, who really brought the party back to its core, back to its grassroots, the party has been outstanding.”

— Gov. Scott Walker

“He’s got a number of factors that all are good when they combine. He’s incredibly smart; he’s one of the hardest workers I have ever known.”

— State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester

“He was just a young man who I always thought was just kind of destined to achieve the goals he had set for himself.”

— Charles Bradley, Priebus’ government and politics teacher at Tremper High School

“He’s youthful. ... Youth used to be a problem. I don’t think it’s a problem any longer.”

— John Allen, 88, longtime Kenosha Republican Party supporter and Priebus’ co-delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1992

“While we don’t agree politically, I am grateful for his generous spirit during the hard-fought campaign season behind us, and in the hard-fought campaigns yet to come. And while of course we don’t wish him luck, we do wish the first national party chairman from Wisconsin well in his new endeavor.”

—Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin

Sources: Interviews, Kenosha News archives, reinceforrnc.com

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