Reince Priebus. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock.com)
Reince Priebus, the consummate party loyalist and the Republican National Committee’s longest-serving chairman, will be chief of staff to a president whose candidacy threatened to rip the Republican Party apart—an irony not lost on his University of Miami School of Law classmates.
Priebus, 44, graduated from law school in 1998 and then returned to Wisconsin to launch his political career and join Milwaukee firm Michael Best & Friedrich, where he’s been on leave since becoming RNC chair in 2011. President-elect Donald Trump announced his appointment as chief of staff on Sunday, at the same time he picked controversial Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon to serve as chief White House strategist.
“Reince is a good man and a very reasonable person. He doesn’t fit the mold of a lot of the other people Trump is picking,” said one old friend and classmate, Andrew Moss, a plaintiffs lawyer at Kutner, Rubinoff & Moss in Miami and a self-described left-leaning liberal. “I really pray that this brings a voice of reason to the White House and the cabinet.”
Several former classmates and professors called Priebus a smart pick, suggesting he will be the even-keeled yin to Trump’s unpredictable yang. All praised his even temper, willingness to work with people with very different points of view and loyalty to his principles.
“For all those people out there who have fears about a Trump presidency—of whom there are many—if they knew Reince Priebus as I do, I think they would be somewhat comforted,” said former classmate Al Isani, a solo practitioner in Miami and an independent-leaning Democrat.
“He’s a voice of reason and he will try and keep things on an even keel,” Isani said.
The University of Miami Law has a very diverse student body and Priebus got along with everybody, said Isani, whose father, a Muslim, immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in the mid-1960s.
“The way you see him on TV is how he was—always smiling and even-tempered,” Isani said. “I don’t have anything bad to say about him. How often can you say that about a fellow lawyer?”
Another close friend, Brian Hamburger, called Priebus “spectacular in his moderation and his ability not to be extreme.”
“Maybe back in the day that was not such a spectacular trait—but nowadays I think it is,” said Hamburger, who described his own politics as “staunchly independent.”
Priebus was the Student Bar Association president at the law school and Hamburger edited the student newspaper, which is how they became friends.
“Reince has the ability to really digest things at a very human and empathetic level. He’s one of those guys that transcend politics,” said Hamburger, who runs a New Jersey consultancy, MarketCounsel, and law firm serving investment advisers.
Moss said he saw that side of Priebus when they became study partners in an evidence class. They had gone to Wendy’s on a break and encountered a homeless man on the way in. Priebus ordered two meals, then went outside and gave one to the man.
“I’ve never forgotten that. It’s now what I would have expected from a Republican,” Moss said.
The University of Miami Law’s vice dean at the time, Laurence Rose, who interacted regularly with Priebus in his role as SBA president, said he was glad to know Priebus would have the president’s ear.
“He was not a table thumper,” Rose said. “He clearly knows and understands in politics that sometimes you speak loudly—and oftentimes you don’t.”
Samuel Thompson Jr., the law school’s dean in 1998, predicted Priebus would be an “honest broker” who presents all sides of the issues to Trump as he deals with Congress. “He’s a conservative Republican—he wouldn’t be in this position if he wasn’t—but he’s a fair-minded guy,” said Thompson, who described himself as a liberal Democrat and strong Hillary Clinton supporter.
Thompson, who is also African-American, pointed out that Priebus backed South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley last year when she called to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. “That shows what an honorable guy he is,” he said.
Priebus’ background is as different from Trump’s as his temperament. He grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where his father was an electrician and his mother sold real estate.
While in law school, Priebus clerked for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. He also interned for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in California.
“He holds the blue-collar values of the base that got Trump elected—and the ability to reach across the aisle to people of other ideologies was evident even in law school,” Isani said, adding that Priebus’s current role as the “go-between and the unifier” between the Trump campaign and the Republican Party does not surprise him.
“He would listen and try and take into account people’s problems and concerns, no matter what their political stance—whether kind of a hippie like me or a crisp, buttoned-down type,” said Isani, who noted that that their class elected Priebus its first-year representative.
Another classmate in Priebus’s section, Todd Wallen, said Priebus “took the temperature and knew how not to irritate people.”
“I always got along with him even though I’m completely politically different from him,” said Wallen, a trial lawyer at Wallen Hernandez Lee Martinez. “I had no idea at the time that he was such a raging Republican.”
Isani recalled that the first time he visited Priebus’s apartment, he was surprised to see that the walls were covered with pictures of him shaking hands with various Republican dignitaries.
Serving the Trump administration will test the strength of some of Priebus’ Republican ties. “The big question,” said Moss, “is how much control is he going to have?”
Time will tell, Moss said. “Like the rest of the election—I think I’ve given up on guessing,” he said. “Reince has principles. I hope he will keep them in the White House.”
Originally published on Daily Business Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.