Donald Trump and Reince Priebus.
You might never find two more different politicians.
Raised in Green Bay and Kenosha by middle class parents, Priebus began working on his first political campaign as a high school student. From there he climbed the ranks of the local and state party system to become the head of the state Republican Party, and at the age of 38, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Trump, a businessman known more for his flair for self-promotion than politics, bounced between political parties for years before surprising pundits of all stripes to become the GOP’s nominee for president of the United States.
Once critical of the hotel baron, Priebus set to work, as he had in difficult battles back home, to secure a win for his candidate. On Nov. 13, 2016, Trump tapped the stalwart Midwesterner to be his chief of staff, making him one of his top advisors and a gatekeeper for the Oval Office.
With fears of how the cantankerous Trump will wield his newfound power, the narrative from the RNC has been that the level-headed Priebus will be a stabilizing force — one that will transform the often chaotic Trump campaign into a functioning presidency.
But here in Wisconsin, Jews and other minorities troubled by the bigotry and xenophobia that often surrounded Trump’s rise to power, may be wondering what they can expect from the studied political operative from Wisconsin.
Will he fight against rhetoric and policies that aim to target or silence religious or minority groups?
At least three Wisconsinites familiar with Priebus and his work – two of them Jews – believe he will.
‘Voice of reason’
If you ask James Levin about Priebus, he might tell you that he couldn’t be more proud of him if he were his own son.
Levin met Priebus when both were attorneys at Michael Best & Friedrich. Levin was nearing the end of his career and Priebus, having graduated from the University of Miami Law School in 1998, was just beginning his.
Nevertheless the two began a friendship of sorts, says Levin, working together on cases, and sometimes attending political functions.
In those days, and today, Michael Best & Friedrich was associated with the Republican Party, and Priebus was one of its rising stars.
Although Levin, a self-described Conservative, wasn’t really part of the party, he said Priebus would invite him to events because he knew Levin enjoyed them.
Levin remembers Priebus, not only as bright and engaging, but as “decent and honest” – a lawyer who managed to be dedicated to his clients while also climbing the political ladder.
When he heard Trump had tapped his old friend to be chief of staff, Levin says he was proud, but also a little worried.
“Reince, when you see him on television, he is not what you might call a charismatic, dynamic speaker,” Levin said. “He is not a guy who is a stand-up showman. He is a guy who is there because he has performed.”
But it is exactly that earnestness, or lack of showmanship, that makes Priebus right for the job of Trump’s chief of staff, Levin says.
Asked if he thought Priebus would stand up to attacks on certain religious groups and minorities, Levin said, “I think Reince will stand up for what’s right, not just religious freedom.”
“Reince knows right from wrong,” Levin said, adding that Priebus, a devout Christian, doesn’t think of Jews as Jews.
“I think he thinks of Jews as people,” he said.
He adds that he found it brilliant that Trump appointed Priebus to work hand-in-hand with his chief strategist, Steve Bannon – a former Breitbart News executive who has drawn criticism for the website’s far-right viewpoints that can be seen as racist, sexist and anti-Semitic.
“I think he is a voice of reason…a consensus builder. He would not take the job simply to zip up his mouth and never talk… Reince Priebus is not going to sit in a room and let bad things be done,” Levin said.
‘Surrounded by Jews’
Before you even ask about the role Priebus might play when it comes to protecting religious freedom, Rabbi Avner Zarmi, an essayist for the Conservative news and opinion website PJ Media, will tell you that the claims of anti-Semitism in the Trump administration, and the power of the alternative or ‘alt right’ and its followers are off base.
The rabbi and former aerospace industry executive argues people can find more anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party, primarily when it comes to its stance on Israel.
“First of all let’s put to bed the very overblown notion that Bannon is an anti-Semite. I have been assured by people who know him personally that he is not,” said Zarmi, the chairman of the North Shore Branch of the Republican Party of Milwaukee County.
“I consider (the alt right) to be a very dangerous problem on the fringe of the Conservative movement, which now has tended to move to the center. (Bannon) is at most an enabler,” he added.
That said, he believes Priebus, who he has worked within his role as a member of the Republican Party, has already brought a much-needed stability to the Trump operation, something that is evidenced, he said, by many of the “solid people” he believes Priebus has placed before Trump for possible cabinet positions.
“Just consider the fact, of what he engineered in Wisconsin. He was the head of the Republican Party in Wisconsin at the time of that historic 2010 election. Before November 2010, there was one statewide office that was in Republican hands,” Zarmi said. “When the smoke cleared after the November election, it was almost exactly the reverse.”
Any person concerned about the potential for anti-Semitism in the Trump camp need only look at Trump himself and his recent appointments, said Zarmi, who notes he didn’t vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton.
“Mr. Trump is surrounded by Jewish people, including his own daughter and son-in-law… If he is sending any ‘dog whistles’ to anyone, he is doing it inadvertently…I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t see Trump as much of a deep thinker.”
Political know how
When it comes to managing someone like Trump, Brandon Scholz, a former executive director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, believes Americans – be they members of a religious minority or not – will find Priebus is perfect for the job.
“You couldn’t ask for a better guy than Reince to mitigate a lot of the different issues that are going to come into the White House, through the White House, or that are going to emanate from inside the White House,” said Scholz, the president and CEO of Wisconsin Grocers Association.
“Reince understands the gatekeeper role. He understands the filtering role.”
If you want proof that Priebus has chops to tangle with the thorny issues of a Trump presidency, all you have to do is look at what he pulled off during the presidential campaign itself, he says.
“He was put in some extraordinarily difficult positions. He had to balance the people who elected him into that job and the people that were going to elect the next president,” Scholz said.
“Do you think he can handle the concerns of this particular group or another? I think the answer is right there in front of you.”
But not everyone familiar with Priebus’ work in Wisconsin, and later nationally, thinks that experience will be an asset – at least not for workers or those outside the Beltway.
For Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Priebus’ political savvy is exactly what makes him somebody you shouldn’t trust.
Soglin, a Democrat and one of the only Jews in elected office in Wisconsin, points to what he calls the deceitful nature with which the state Republican Party, lead at the time by Priebus, orchestrated the push to abolish collective bargaining rights for public employee unions in 2010.
“He was one of the major architects of Act 10 here in Wisconsin. He was the one who was behind the scenes, crafting Gov. (Scott) Walker’s position,” Soglin said. “He was the one who helped construct the strategy, which was to get elected never mentioning the agenda, and then (as soon as the election as over) starting the steam roller that lead to Act 10.”