Though no official start date has been set, Ehrenwerth will spend this summer ending ties and finishing work with his K&L clients before relocating to his new office in Philadelphia, likely by August, he said. In his new position, Ehrenwerth will oversee about 1,000 federal employees and 750 federal buildings.
The call of appointment was not unexpected, said Ehrenwerth, but was still exciting.
“I knew I was in the running, but there are a lot of very talented people out there who want to work for our dynamic president,” he said. “It’s not every day you get a phone call and your secretary says, ‘The White House is on the line for you.’ ”
Sixty-three-year-old Ehrenwerth said he was pushed by Senator Bob Casey to involve himself more directly in politics, and that Casey, “was kind enough to recommend me to the White House for a position I could do well with.”
Ehrenwerth has spent most of his life in the Pittsburgh area, growing up in Duquesne, living in Oakland while attending the University of Pittsburgh and now residing in Fox Chapel. He is a member of Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill.
Ehrenwerth’s experience as a real estate lawyer, handling the legal ramifications of new real estate development in the area, provided him the necessary know-how to head the GSA branch. But this will not be Ehrenwerth’s first time working in politics. His first job after graduating Harvard Law School in 1972 was as assistant attorney general of Pennsylvania, where he, “fought organized crime. It was a very exciting time,” he said.
That position afforded him the opportunity to work with former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and the late Sen. John Heinz.
“Working with those great Republican leaders caused me to be a Republican, if you will,” said Ehrenwerth. “But as years went by, I did not feel that my personal attitudes and ideas about government were consistent with the approaches of the Republican Party, and I came back to my roots and became an active Democrat.”
Ehrenwerth worked on Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, as well as that of President Obama’s, along with, Ehrenwerth noted, his son Justin, who was the Philadelphia Coordinator of Obama for America.
“We have a two generational thing going now,” said Ehrenwerth.
It is in his new position, however, where Ehrenwerth feels he will have the greatest impact by far, as the GSA’s workload is “staggering,” he said.
“I like to call [the GSA] the ‘real estate developer and business manager of the federal government,’ ” said Ehrenwerth. “It really has the role of acquiring, developing and leasing government buildings and all the property that goes with them. It’s a massive operation.”
Ehrenwerth estimated that the GSA managed about 350 million square feet of real estate among government buildings, with a budget of about $65 billion also used for physical supplies, as, “there are about 1.1 million federal workers, and they all need computers, telecommunication, furniture,” he said.
But Ehrenwerth said he sees the position as an opportunity to have an impact on many aspects of the economy beyond real estate management.
“When you have this sort of economic clout, you have a matter of social engineering. Where you locate a building determines economic development, new jobs, encouraging other businesses to sprout up,” said Ehrenwerth.
Among the most important of those social functions is environmental impact, he said.
“If the government needs a new federal courthouse, you tell the contractors who will build it for you that a building has to be green and sustainable,” said Ehrenwerth. “Then the people in the free marketplace know they’ll only get the business if they work in a green way.”
“The clout to manage and control development is in itself a force for achieving goals,” he continued. “I’m dedicated to doing good things — tikkun olam — in the spirit of Judaism.”
Ehrenwerth will move to Philadelphia with his wife, Judy, this summer, and will spend time in Washington, D.C., as well as Pittsburgh, as “it is one of my areas of responsibility, though not a big part. And I’ll certainly come back to see my friends.”
Beyond the excitement of working in the Obama administration, Ehrenwerth is looking forward to, “the challenge of turning exciting ideas into real live projects,” he said, “real estate projects that affect people’s lives.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)