David Ehrenwerth attended a few meetings in the White House last December when he noticed a chanukia sitting on a wooden table where Cabinet members enter the building for gatherings.
Of course, not everybody that entered through the doorway understood the symbolism of the candleholder.
“Anybody who didn’t know what it was,” Ehrenwerth said, “they sure knew it by the time we were done talking about it.”
Ehrenwerth just completed a presidential appointment as associate commissioner of the U.S. Public Buildings Service and formerly as regional administrator of the General Services Administration from 2010-2012.
“It wasn’t a fully Jewish environment,” Ehrenwerth said of President Barack Obama’s administration. “But it reminded me a little bit of the coalitions I was involved in through my Jewish organizational work be it the ZOA or the American Jewish Committee, where you would bring people together from all kinds of backgrounds who had a common interest in trying to improve our country or deal with circumstances and collaborate.”
The Jewish Pittsburgh native, who returned to being a partner in the K&L Gates law firm, Downtown, lectured on the subject “A Jewish Perspective on Serving in the U.S. Presidential Administration,” at the Kandy Reidbord Ehrenwerth Memorial Lecture and annual meeting held by the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District, Monday evening at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill.
Ehrenwerth was a member of the Republican Party for years until, believing he had more in common with the Democrats, he switched parties. Ehrenwerth subsequently volunteered on John Kerry’s presidential 2004 campaign and despite Kerry’s loss he remained involved.
One day, Bob Casey, who at the time was running for U.S. Senate, approached Ehrenwerth. Casey showed an interest in Jewish views and Israel and Ehrenwerth asked Casey if he had ever visited Israel. Casey said that he had not and Ehrenwerth asked him to go. The two men spent a week in the country.
Ehrenwerth worked on the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 and remained in contact with Casey after his election to the Senate. The two would occasionally meet when Casey returned to Pittsburgh.
During one of these meetings, Ehrenwerth gave Casey a message for Obama.
“You’ve got to tell the president that the power of the federal government’s real estate portfolio, the largest real estate portfolio in this country with nothing even close to it, can be used as a key for urban renewal and economic development,” Ehrenwerth said. “Where we place our federal office buildings, where we place our courthouses can revolutionize communities, can stimulate all kinds of spin-off growth.”
Casey’s response: “Would you like to go to Washington and do that?”
So he did.
But Ehrenwerth wanted to do something meaningful, and being a real estate lawyer, he did not know what he could do to change the world.
“[A member of the Presidential Personnel Office] said to me ‘Do you know who the biggest real estate developer in the country is?’ And I said ‘Since you’re asking me I know it has to be the United States of America,’ ” Ehrenwerth said. “And they made a presentation to me about how my humble, little field could really have an impact when you provide the housing for 1.1 million people, the federal employees, everything from the Veterans’ Administration to Social Security Administration — to all the courts and every agency.”
Ehrenwerth first ran a region of the country based in Philadelphia, and then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked on the whole operation.
While on the latest campaign trail and living in Washington, Ehrenwerth recognized that a number of Jews held important roles in Obama’s administration.
“One of the things [Obama] said in his campaign is he wanted his administration to reflect the diversity of the country and that’s what it does do,” Ehrenwerth said. “Part of [that diversity] is the Jewish community and he relied very heavily on Jewish people — Rahm Emanuel, Jack Lew, David Axelrod —and so it was a very warm feeling for me to have those people be the leaders of the team.”
Instead of staying for Obama’s second term, Ehrenwerth returned to Pittsburgh at the request of friends, family and clients.
“It’s a very very high level commitment,” Ehrenwerth said of government service. “I didn’t mind doing that, but Pittsburgh is home.”
He spoke to honor his late wife, Kandy Reidbord Ehrenwerth, a Pittsburgh trial lawyer who died in a car accident in 1992. Her family created an endowment in her memory with a lecture in her honor at the ZOA’s annual meeting.
“When we’ve had these occasions they’ve always been a bit bittersweet,” Ehrenwerth said. “It’s a rather ongoing sadness involved when remembering how Kandy’s life was tragically cut so short when she had so much more to do and was so vibrant and alive, and we remember that always.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)