Two years ago, an obscure 38-year-old GOP official from Wisconsin with a strange-sounding name — Reince Priebus — took the reins of the party machinery and sought to move on from the forgettable term of former RNC Chairman Michael Steele. At the convention, he’ll be one of the party’s top faces, and he’s in charge of the organization that, together with the Romney campaign, is responsible for making sure the four-day event goes off without a hitch.
During an interview in his Washington, D.C. corner office at RNC headquarters, an edited transcript of which is below, The Huffington Post spoke to Priebus about his family’s union ties, why he finds Washington a little weird, and why it’s important that he has, as he said, watched his words closely. (Hint: It has a lot to do with not being like Steele.)
As we sat down with Priebus, a wood engraving underneath his TV caught our eye. It bore the words of 1 Timothy 4:12: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” We asked the 40-year-old chairman about that first.
HUFFINGTON POST: Why do you have 1 Timothy on your thing there?
REINCE PRIEBUS: I think that it’s really important to be reminded that just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish big things, and I think that’s a good message for everybody.
So you’re from Wisconsin. You’re a lawyer, former state party chair. How have you guys liked living in Washington? Are Washingtonians as unpleasant as we think we are?
No. First of all, no, I don’t find Washingtonians unpleasant at all. I think it’s a great place. But I think it’s better for us living in Wisconsin. It’s just something we’re more used to. … I let the dog out in Kenosha, I let the dog out and the dog comes back 40 minutes later. That’s how it operates. Over here I got a dog walker, which is expensive. It’s just sort of a weird way to operate.
If you were going to a Brewers game and you had to pick between Paul Ryan, Scott Walker and Ron Johnson, who would you take?
Come on, give me a break. I can’t answer that. To me, that’s like asking a question about my kids, like which one is my favorite. They’re all my very good friends—
All right, stop. Do you go noodling [for catfish] with Paul Ryan?
What do you think of noodling?
Umm, I think it’s, umm, I think it’s fun to watch on TV.
What music are you listening to right now?
Back in Black … I have very diverse music. If you looked at my iPad you would see Toby Keith, Metallica, AC/DC, you know, Frank Sinatra, Coldplay, I mean, you’d probably get it all.
In one sentence, what do most liberals most often misunderstand or get wrong about conservatism?
I don’t actually know if they believe it or if it’s just a political play, but they love playing this idea that we’re just for people who have money, which, I just totally reject. I don’t come from a family like that. My dad’s an electrician, my mom was born in Sudan. Half my family lived in Greece. I think what we believe is that everybody should have an opportunity to make good money, and we want people to do well.
Was your dad in a union?
Yeah I think he was in a couple unions. He was in the SEIU, when he retired, with the Racine school district, but then he was a IBW electrician for a long, long time.
And you interned at the NAACP, right?
For the legal defense fund out in California.
Is that because you found yourself in alignment with them ideologically?
No, but like Condi Rice did — you know, back then there was nothing strange at all about a Republican working with the NAACP legal defense fund. I just think, in different places at different times, the organization has changed.
And why was your mom born in Sudan?
Back in the ’60s, northern Africa — as I understood it and as it was explained to me — was sort of the new frontier of southern Europe. So there were a lot of Italians and Greeks and Spanish that lived in northern Africa, in the ’60s. My mother was 19 or 20 when she met my dad, and she had lived in Khartoum her entire life. She worked at the American embassy in Sudan. My dad was in the Army in Ethiopia because the United States had an Army base in, I think it was Eritrea. And then he met my mom when she was in Karthoum.
For the delegates, in three bullet points, why should they think you are doing a good job as party chairman?
I think I’ve been mission-driven, we’ve raised record amounts of money, and I’ve watched my mouth and stayed on message.
How much trouble do you expect at the convention out of the Ron Paul delegates?
I don’t. I don’t expect much. I think the choices in this country are going to be so clear and stark between the idea of America and restoring liberty and freedom and Barack Obama that that message will be, I think that will unify everybody involved in Tampa…OK, you don’t have any other good ones?
Was that boring?
I like those types of questions. I like the deposition. I don’t mind being deposed. Just remember this: I have deposed, defended and taken hundreds of depositions, so when I first came into this job, one of the things that people, what the media said was, “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” And there is a skill, as a trial lawyer, which I was, that people underestimate, which is sort of just this idea that you can see things on paper just before they leave your tongue. It’s just sort of a processing thing. So that’s why I like, I love the little rapid stuff. Favorite ice cream. Favorite movie.
All right, favorite movie?
Well that’s a tough — I shouldn’t have done that.
You asked for that one!
I’ll tell you what. I tend to like more dumb-like stuff, like Tommy Boy, you know, Meet the Parents, um, What About Bob? You know, that kind of stuff. I enjoy that kind of stuff a lot more than something real serious.
Jon Ward is a senior political reporter for The Huffington Post.