Dan Tangherlini was an unfamiliar face to most Americans when the White House plucked him from its ranks to run the General Services Administration amid the scandal that forced out the agency’s top officials.
But in Washington circles, he already had developed a reputation as a fixer and rising star in Democratic politics since arriving as an intern in 1991 at the Office of Management and Budget.
Tangherlini spent six years at the agency before taking on at least six different jobs in 15 years in Washington.
One of the first glimpses the rest of America got of Tangherlini was last week during a 3-minute video he posted on YouTube – following revelations of the agency’s $823,000 spending for a Las Vegas conference that resulted in the high-level housing cleaning and him being appointed as the GSA’s acting administrator.
In his quintessential style, Tangherlini, standing beside a U.S. flag, essentially reviewed the facts and stated how he would attempt to fix the problems. Aside from calling the spending “completely unacceptable,” Tangherlini’s speech was otherwise unquotable and drew no attention to himself.
In 1997, Tangherlini moved to the Transportation Department before being loaned to the District of Columbia government, serving as an interim chief financial officer for the city’s police department, then director of the city transportation department.
He was also acting general manager of Metro, the region’s public transit agency, before joining the administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Several years later, President Obama nominated him to be assistant Treasury secretary, the job he held until this month.
On Thursday, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting House delegate, described Tangherlini as a public sector equivalent of a corporate “turn-around expert.”
“He's a master of hard jobs,” she said. “Who did they call when they needed somebody to hold down the fort? Dan Tangherlini.”
Norton and others repeatedly praised Tangherlini’s work for the city during a tough financial period and his efforts at Metro, which continuously struggles under financial constraints.
“I have high regard for his ability,” said D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, a Democrat who also served on Metro’s board of directors. “He was the general manager in a crisis situation.”
Tangherlini, who is not giving interviews, graduated from the University of Chicago and received a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School.
“Dan is a very decisive and no-nonsense guy,” said D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, a Democrat. “With Dan they knew they had a person who could step into a void. He’s more concerned about getting it done than in the process. That’s hard to find in government.”
Still, with all of Tangherlini’s successes, not everything has been a smooth ride. The Fenty administration -- which was committed to improving the city outside of the political process – was upset in 2010 after one term.
In addition, sources said a political turf battle kept Tangherlini from getting the top Metro job and that he was already looking to leave the Treasury Department.
There is also the question about whether he would stay at the General Services Administration, not considered a high-profile or prestigious agency.
Still, cleaning up the agency would almost assuredly help Tangherlini advance, if Obama wins re-election.
And he appears to have bipartisan support.
"We got the two good guys here," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., referring to Tangherlini and GSA inspector general Brian Miller.
Inhofe is the ranking member of the chamber’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, which held a hearing on the GSA scandal Wednesday.
Despite the backing, Norton and others are pushing hard on Tangherlini to clean up the mess.
"Don't underestimate this job you have in terms of shaking this tree and letting these bad apples fall," said California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the investigating Senate committee.
Said Norton: “I ask him to do better because I know he can do better.”