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The Unlikely Rise of Reince Priebus

Jessi Paetzke
"Hail to the Chief-of-Staff" signs and big-screen TVs hung above as friends and family of Reince Priebus gathered in his hometown of Kenosha on Inauguration Day.

A number of reports surfaced this week that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is being met with dissent in the executive office. Some White House staff members dispute that report.

What seems indisputable is that he was not always seen as a likely candidate for national political fame. 

Reporter Joe Potente covered Priebus’s first and only run for office as he was coming up through the Republican Party ranks in the Kenosha area more than a decade ago. He writes about Priebus’s early days in the current issue of Milwaukee Magazine. It's the kind of article you "won't read in Time Magazine," says Potente. It focuses on his life and career in Southeastern Wisconsin, and growing up as a Republican in a Democratic stronghold. 

"He was politically involved as a child... He was the chairman of Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign at Pleasant Prairie Elementary School, when he was in third grade," Potente explains. In his Milwaukee Magazine article, Potente compares the young Reince Preibus to the Alex P. Keaton character from Family Ties. "It's pretty obvious," Potente says, "right down to the briefcase that he apparently carried to junior high school." 

Preibus became involved with the Republican Party in Kenosha when he was 16-years-old, and served as a precinct captain in 1988 election. His political beliefs ran counter to most of the people in his area and likely, those in his own family. 

"His dad was a union electrician, it was a union town. So Reince is in this very small minority and he's young," Potente explains. "I think that may have shown him how to kind of come at things as an outsider and get to the inside." 

Preibus remained in Southeastern Wisconsin for college, attending the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, where he was the chairman of the College Republicans. After attending the University of Miami School of Law, he returned to Southeastern Wisconsin and worked as a lawyer at a firm in Milwaukee. 

In 2004, he launched his first and only campaign for public office. Preibus ran for election to the Wisconsin State Senate, hoping to represent Wisconsin's 22nd District and his hometown, Kenosha. He lost by four points to the incumbent Democrat Robert Wirch.

In 2007, his fellow Republicans elected him chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, and four years later in 2011, he became chairman of the National Republican Party. 

Following the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama, Reince performed what he called an "autopsy" of the campaign. "He dug deep into everything the party had done wrong in the Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and produced this big, thick report," says Potente. 

The report had a myriad of suggestions for resuscitating the Republican Party, including embracing comprehensive immigration reform and reaching out to women and minorities, among other things.

It was a surprise to some that Preibus would joined the Trump Administration, since his many suggestions to the party were "basically the opposite of everything that Donald Trump brought to the table," says Potente.

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Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.