Douglas Emhoff was meeting a client about a case in his Los Angeles law office in the early 2010s when the conversation took an unexpected turn. Was Emhoff single, the client wondered — and if so, did he want to go on a blind date with her old friend Kamala Harris?
His first response to the prospect of meeting Harris, then the California attorney general, was “She’s hot!” Emhoff (who was indeed single) recalled in a recent YouTube interview. His second was to text Harris from his seat at the Lakers game that evening.
His third was to call her superearly the next morning and then, in a fit of nervous ardor, leave a rambling, self-described “lame” voicemail message whose long-windedness horrified him, even as he compounded it with further verbiage. (He had to physically stop himself from leaving a follow-up message disavowing the first one. “It was like the scene in ‘Swingers’ when Jon Favreau just keeps calling and calling,” he said in the YouTube interview which, in a way that seems perfectly normal in this strange campaign, was conducted over Zoom in April by Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten.)
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Emhoff, and Harris, both now 55, married in 2014 — his second marriage, her first — and they both love their origin story. (She saved the voicemail message and makes him listen to it each year on their anniversary.) And now Emhoff, who emerged as a fervent professional spouse during his wife’s thwarted campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, is a serious contender to be the country’s first Second Gentleman.
Only two women besides Harris have ever been nominated for the vice presidency from major parties, so Emhoff finds himself in a rarefied men’s club. His predecessors include John Zaccaro, a well-off real estate developer whose complicated financial arrangements and reluctance to release his tax returns tarnished the luster of his wife, Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate in the 1984 election. And there was Todd Palin, the rough-and-ready snowmobile-racing “first dude” of Alaska, whose wife, Sarah Palin, played up her hot-marriage-to-a-macho-guy credentials but ran a disastrous vice-presidential campaign that hampered the candidacy of Sen. John McCain in 2008. (The Palins are now divorced.)
Husbands of high-profile candidates walk a tricky line, required to exude both alpha-male independence and second-wheel supportiveness, said Lori Poloni-Staudinger, a professor in the politics and international affairs department at Northern Arizona University whose work focuses on women and politics. “There’s a fascination with women candidates’ domestic lives that we don’t see with men’s lives,” she said. That extends to questions about their child care arrangements, their work-life balance — and the balance of power in their marriage.
“It goes back to our gendered expectations of women and the way they are supposed to behave,” Poloni-Staudinger continued. “They’re normally relegated to the private sphere, and when they come into the public sphere, it’s as if they have to be given permission. So their spouse has to show both that he’s totally supportive and that he isn’t emasculated by them.”
The Harris campaign declined to make Emhoff available for an interview.
But the candidate’s husband, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper who specializes in media, sports and entertainment litigation, is certainly supportive. (He has taken a leave of absence from his job, apparently mindful about avoiding any possible conflicts of interest; the firm declined to comment.) Throwing himself with unabashed enthusiasm into the project, Harris’ husband has produced a stream of social media posts following one basic theme: I love this woman. “I’ve got you. As always,” he tweeted last December, over a photo of Harris sitting in his lap under a “Kamala Harris for the People” poster, his arms wrapped around her as she leaned back against him.
And on Tuesday night, he tweeted a candid shot of Harris watching the Democratic convention from home (or a hotel room), all smiles in her Howard University sweatshirt, no makeup, her hair pulled back in a pony tail. “Kamala loving this roll call,” he wrote.
“I think he is having a good time,” said Aaron H. Jacoby, an old friend and former law partner of Emhoff.
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Emhoff’s enthusiastic befriending of other candidates’ spouses in the primaries, to the point where he and Chasten Buttigieg spent one debate texting emojis to each other as their spouses battled it out onstage, was consistent with his friendly, engaging approach to making contacts and building his law practice, said Jacoby, now managing partner for the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Emhoff moved to California with his parents when he was a teenager and has remained there ever since. (He says “awesome” a lot in interviews.) He went to California State University, Northridge, and got his law degree from University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
Jacoby recalled when he and Emhoff were young corporate lawyers, ready to open their new firm together in Los Angeles. (The firm was called Whitwell Jacoby Emhoff, and it went on to become an arm of the larger firm Venable.) “We had the usual startup needs, including choosing art to make us look ‘important’ and serious,” he said. Jacoby and their third partner, Ben Whitwell, favored using the Los Angeles County Museum lending program to procure big-ticket pieces, but Emhoff argued for the abstract impressionist work of his father, who had retired and taken up amateur painting.
“Doug insisted on his dad’s painting for our office,” Jacoby said. “Doug won.” (The paintings were actually very nice, Jacoby added.)
Emhoff supported Jacoby through his divorce — and then Jacoby did the same when Emhoff divorced his first wife, Kerstin Emhoff, the co-founder and chief executive of the Los Angeles production company Prettybird.
The split was unusually unrancorous. The two share parental responsibilities of their young adult children, named Cole and Ella after John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, and are “very adult about dealing with any issue that comes up,” Jacoby said. “They are the model couple for an amicable divorce.”
Harris often mentions in interviews that she loves to cook Sunday dinner for everyone, her husband and stepchildren acting as sous-chefs, Emhoff donning goggles when it’s his turn to chop. “Let me tell you, there is nothing more attractive than a man in onion goggles,” Harris wrote in her memoir.
Emhoff, his ex-wife, his current wife and the children, who call Harris “Momala,” celebrate Thanksgiving together. Kerstin Emhoff campaigns for Harris and promotes her on social media; Harris in turn wrote “an ode” to Kirsten Emhoff for Mother’s Day, Douglas Emhoff said. “Kerstin and I are incredibly close,” he told Chasten Buttigieg, describing her as “an incredibly awesome successful woman.” (“He likes strong, formidable women,” Jacoby said.)
After they met on their first date, at a restaurant in Los Angeles, Douglas Emhoff sent an email to Harris listing “all of his available dates for the next couple of months,” Harris wrote.
“I’m too old to play games or hide the ball,” the email said, mangling its metaphors a bit. “I really like you.” The two decided to give their relationship six months, after which, “if we still felt the way we did, we would just go for it,” Emhoff recalled.
He proposed while they were about to order takeout from a local Thai restaurant. Their marriage, at the Santa Barbara courthouse, reflected their Indian and Jewish heritages: She placed a flower garland around his neck; he stomped on a glass.
Living with Harris through several elections — reelection as state attorney general, election to the Senate and now this — doesn’t mean her new husband is inherently political, per se.
“Doug is committed to Kamala, and he is committed to Kamala’s career,” said Alex M. Weingarten, a longtime friend and former colleague, whom Emhoff twice recruited to join his law firm. “Obviously, being married to someone who has made a career and is so passionate about these issues has to have an impact on him. But I wouldn’t say that marrying someone in politics has made him more political, or turned him into a politician. He is the same Doug.”
Emhoff became a bona fide political spouse during Harris’ Senate race in 2016. But he was startled by the demands placed on him during the Democratic primaries earlier this year, when he was thrust into events on his own, with a microphone and no script, “freaking out,” he told Chasten Buttigieg.
Soon he began to relish his role. He mentioned particularly a trip through rural Nevada. “It was a really incredible experience,” he said. “For a kid who grew up in New York and LA and spent most of my life there, it really opened my eyes.”
It is unclear what role the campaign will assign to Emhoff in the presidential campaign — it is a much bigger deal, obviously, to be an official spouse on an official ticket than it is to be campaigning in the primaries — but for now he seems content to take his cues from his wife.
When the country went into virtual lockdown this spring, Emhoff and Harris found themselves marooned in Washington, she doing her work in the Senate, he doing his legal work from home. They had never spent so much time together.
“We’re learning about each other during the pandemic,” Emhoff told Chasten Buttigieg, as their spouses joined the Zoom interview.
“For example, I had to have a conversation with my mother-in-law about the fact that apparently my husband was not required to clean up his room when he was growing up,” Harris said.
“I’m making up for lost time,” Emhoff said.
“He’s really trainable,” his wife replied.
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