Elections

Before making his name in politics, Priebus was a force at Miami law school

Reince Priebus, left, in sunglasses, as pictured in the second page of the 1998 University of Miami Law School yearbook.
Reince Priebus, left, in sunglasses, as pictured in the second page of the 1998 University of Miami Law School yearbook.

With the 1996 election approaching, the editors of Res Ipsa Loquitur, the University of Miami Law School newspaper, conducted a completely informal, wholly unscientific poll of fellow students about their favorite candidate for president. Bill Clinton topped Bob Dole “in a landslide,” the biweekly paper reported on Sept. 26, 1996.

But more interesting, in hindsight, were two other contenders who appeared further down the list: Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, drew 3 percent support, putting her in sixth place — right behind the 4 percent garnered by the fifth-place candidate, a “relative unknown” by the name of Reince Priebus.

He was, at the time, a second-year UM law student.

Two decades later, it’s Priebus — not Clinton — heading to the White House starting Jan. 20, 2017. Last week, President-elect Donald Trump picked Priebus to be his chief of staff.

Most people know Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman since 2011 and a fixture in cable and Sunday news shows, as a Wisconsin political strategist who lost a 2004 state Senate race and later successfully steered the Wisconsin Republican Party as its youngest chairman.

Few remember he obtained his law degree far from the Badger State, in sunny Coral Gables, a place that — by all accounts — he thoroughly enjoyed. Priebus did not respond to an interview request sent to the RNC.

“I went to school right down the road at the University of Miami,” Priebus said at a Sept. 16 Trump rally at the James L. Knight Center downtown. “Go Hurricanes!”

Priebus, 44, will be one of Trump’s top two deputies. The other, chief strategist and senior counsel Stephen Bannon, has alarmed Democrats and some Republicans. Bannon is the former executive editor of the right-leaning Breitbart website, a favorite of white nationalists and the alt-right.

In contrast, Trump’s choice of Priebus has eased minds.

“It’s probably a good sign for the country that somebody like Reince is involved in the White House and will be close to the president,” said William VanderWyden, the assistant dean for professional development at UM Law who knew Priebus while he was a student and attended his wedding. “He’s a very good guy.”

Priebus has already faced uncomfortable questions about Trump's staffing choices and campaign promises. On NBC News’ “Meet the Press” Sunday, host Chuck Todd asked Priebus about a potential Muslim registry.

“I'm not gonna rule out anything,” Priebus said. “But we’re not going to have a registry based on religion.”

To see Priebus rise to the top echelons of political power has been “surreal,” said Scott Haas, one of Priebus’ law school roommates who now practices in Tampa. “I reached out to him the night of the election results. I know a lot of people were not happy — but I was actually very proud of him.”

Priebus has been on leave since 2011 from the Wisconsin law firm where he made partner, Michael Best & Friedrich. He graduated from the law school, cum laude, in 1998, after clerking for the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Los Angeles, according to UM.

He wasn’t just another student.

Yearbooks from his three years at UM show he got more and more involved in campus life with each passing semester. His third year, he served as Student Bar Association president — and copy editor of Res Ipsa Loquitur (“The thing speaks for itself”), and co-commissioner of the Law School Softball League, where he played shortstop for a team called, yes, Oral Proposition.

“Reince is funny — that’s something a lot of people don’t know about him,” said Rudy Massa, a Pittsburgh attorney who was one of Priebus’ roommates — and lost to him in a mock trial competition. “He’s got a great sense of humor.” (Reince sort of rhymes with “Heinz.” His full first name is Reinhold.)

Priebus was a ubiquitous figure, especially his final year. He first appears in the second page of the 1998 Amicus Curiae (“Friend of the court”) yearbook, clad in shorts, a T-shirt and sunglasses, playfully wading in a campus fountain. He strikes a dance pose with a female student. He visits with a woman at a nursing home. He plays flag football. He helps build a home for charity. He sits, with wire-rimmed eyeglasses, sideburns and a suit jacket, for his formal photograph. He stands shirtless at an Orange Bowl tailgate, with an A for “C-A-N-E-S” painted on his bare chest.

“I always remember him as being a staple at the law school,” said Chad Volkert, Priebus’ softball league co-commissioner, who works for the business side of Robert Half International, a finance and accounting staffing firm in Fort Lauderdale. “Really being the face of our class.”

His first year, Priebus overlapped at the law school with another UM alumnus who would make a name for himself in politics: Marco Rubio, who graduated in 1996. Rubio doesn’t show up once in the 1996 yearbook. It doesn’t appear that the two men knew each other back then.

Without exception, more than half a dozen people interviewed for this story who knew Priebus during law school described him as affable, thoughtful and kind.

Andrew Moss, who was in the same first-year section as Priebus, recounted to a Miami Herald reporter an anecdote about going to grab a bite at Wendy’s with Priebus when they were working on a project. A homeless man lay outside. Priebus didn’t have much money, Moss said, but he bought two meals and gave one to the man.

For most of his classmates, Priebus’ interest in politics — especially over beers at the old Murphy’s Law Irish pub in Coconut Grove — was well-known.

“I’m a diehard Democrat. He’s a diehard Republican,” said Moss, who practices at the Miami law firm Kutner Rubinoff & Moss. “We got into arguments, but it never got personal. He was very good at bringing people together.”

As Student Bar Association president, Priebus penned a biweekly newspaper column. There was some turmoil: The school, without telling students, labeled some of them “at risk” of not passing the bar exam, prompting an eventual apology. The yearbook asked for a $5,000 “bailout” (Priebus vetoed the proposal but lent the yearbook money instead). The federal government threatened to withhold funds if UM didn’t allow military recruiters on campus, forcing the university to relent even though it considered the military violated UM’s anti-discrimination policy against gays and lesbians. The dean resigned. The school downsized.

Even with a smaller student body, Priebus wrote, diversity is “essential.”

Priebus also published a regular feature, “Squirrel Stew,” telling not-entirely-true stories about funny adventures he and other students experienced. Some of them revolved around his upbringing in a half-German, half-Greek family that liked hunting and camping. Many stories involved animals, “because unexpected things happen when you add a bear, snake or a wild boar to the mix,” he wrote.

(An unexpected find in the newspaper pages: a campaign organized by a couple of students — neither of them Priebus — to hire a popular visiting professor, Tim Canova — who this year unsuccessfully challenged Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.)

When Priebus’ name came up in the 1996 presidential poll, the newspaper joked that Priebus, ever the football fan, “focuses his vote gathering efforts on proposing a senate resolution declaring the Green Bay Packers as ‘America’s Team,’ thus replacing the immoral and overrated Cowboys.”

Massa, the old roommate, remembers going out for Thai and Guatemalan food with Priebus — and encouraging him to call Sally Sherrow, his high school sweetheart, during a relationship break when Priebus was “pining” for her. (“I said, ‘Why don’t you just call her? Stop this nonsense!’” Priebus later married Sherrow.)

“We used to have a little color TV in the apartment,” Massa said, “and I still see him, sitting on a milk crate in his sweat pants and Packers T-shirt, with a bowl of cereal, just fixated on a football game.”

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