'Get to work:' Douglas Emhoff, Kamala Harris' husband, vies to be the first Second Gentleman

As Kamala Harris took the Aug. 11 call from Joe Biden to find out if he’d chosen her as his running mate, Harris’ husband pressed his ear to the office door in their Washington, D.C., apartment.

When Douglas Emhoff heard Harris say, “Joe, I’m ready to go to work,” he figured, “That’s a yes.”

Emhoff, a 55-year-old entertainment lawyer more used to dealing with musicians and movie studios than presidential nominees, compares what came next to a scene from the movie “Men in Black.”

Campaign aides barged into their apartment with binders and equipment.

“And I'm like, 'Wait! Don't we have like a week to kind of ease into this?’” Emhoff recalled during a recent campaign event. “Nope. And it was just, 'Get to work.'"

Democratic vice presidential running mate Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff pose on stage after the first Biden-Harris press conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 12, 2020.

The next day, Emhoff was in Wilmington, Delaware, for the first joint appearance of the Democratic ticket – wearing long pants, he said, for the first time in 5½ months of coronavirus confinement.

Headlines blared that Harris was the first woman of color on a major-party ticket.

“Doug, you’re going to have to learn what it means to be a barrier-breaker yourself,” Biden said.

Hitting the campaign trail

The man who could become the nation’s “first Second Gentleman” – as well as the first Jewish American in that role – has been in a whirlwind of campaign activity since Harris joined forces with Biden.

The day after Harris delivered her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Emhoff made his first full public remarks to an LGBTQ Caucus virtual meeting at the convention.

Soon after, Emhoff was headlining a fundraiser with James Taylor – and reminiscing about Taylor being the first musician he saw in concert, during his adolescence in New Jersey. (Emhoff's family moved to California when he was 17.)

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Doug Emhoff, Sen. Kamala Harris' husband, graduated from Agoura High School in Agoura Hills, California, in 1982.

Fundraisers have continued at a steady pace, including a recent one that tapped into Emhoff’s network of attorney friends – including his sister – and collected at least $960,000.

At virtual campaign gatherings for Jewish supporters – such as those in the politically important states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida – Emhoff has brought up the three-piece, brown velour suit he wore for his bar mitzvah, bragged about Harris’ “dead on” impersonation of his mother’s New York accent, and referred to Biden as a “menschy dude.”

“We need a mensch in the White House,” he said.

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`Everyone's got an opinion on this'

On Wednesday, Emhoff is scheduled to campaign in New Hampshire with Biden's wife, Jill, who previously held the non-elected but public position he may step into.

All the while, people keep asking Emhoff – and his parents – what his own priorities will be if becomes the first male spouse of the nation’s first female vice president.

“Everyone’s got an opinion on this, which is nice to hear,” Emhoff said during a recent fundraiser, wearing a blue blazer over a polo shirt and speaking in front of overlapping American flags. “Which means people are actually excited about the prospect of someone like me in this role – and I get that.”

After Harris joined the ticket, Emhoff took a leave of absence from DLA Piper, one of the world’s largest law firms. Emhoff said he wanted to focus full-time on the campaign. But returning to his job, if Democrats win the White House, could pose a potential conflict of interest because of the firm’s many clients. There’s precedent, however, for keeping his own professional identity.

Karen Pence, the current Second Lady, teaches art part-time at a Christian elementary school. Her predecessor, Jill Biden, was a full-time community college professor. Both also used their positions to support military families, along with other initiatives.

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Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, with wife Dr. Jill Biden, and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), with husband Douglas Emhoff, stand socially distanced apart after delivering remarks at the Alexis Dupont High School on August 12, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.

During the “Lawyers for Biden” fundraiser, Emhoff said many of the issues he would want to focus on as Second Gentleman are justice related, particularly “access to justice.”

He recalled being shocked, as a young lawyer going to Los Angeles’ Superior Court, by all the people lining the halls in need of legal help.

“Just tugging at my, at that time, double-breasted jacket to say, 'Help. Help,'" he said. “It was just so impactful.”

`I just hate bullies'

When other children were dreaming of becoming a fireman or centerfielder, Emhoff said he knew as young as age 6 that he wanted to be a lawyer.

“I just hate bullies,” he said.

Being a lawyer – and especially a trial lawyer – was the perfect job, he said, “because it enabled me to fight for folks who needed me, and to be there for them when they had their hardest problems.”

He also liked the job's competitive nature.

“It's something I really love,” he said. “I'm really good at it, and I’ve just had an incredible, rewarding career.’”

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff stand on stage at the end of the third day of the Democratic National Convention.

Emhoff earned about $1.5 million in 2018, according to the tax returns Harris released when she sought the Democratic nomination.

"Doug has served as litigation counsel and trusted advisor for some of the biggest names in Hollywood and across the entertainment, media and sports spectrum," Roger Meltzer, DLA Piper’s global co-chairman said in a statement when Emhoff joined the company as a partner in 2017.

His clients have included a studio executive accused of breach of contract and fraud over a blockbuster film, production companies, a former NFL athlete, a sports nutrition company, and a national brand lotion accused of false advertising, according to DLA Piper.

The case he may be most noted for is his successful defense of an advertising agency in a dispute over the rights to the Taco Bell chihuahua that starred in the "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" ads.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is joined on stage by her husband Doug Emhoff after she spoke during the third day of the Democratic National Convention, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.

`Oh my god! She’s hot!'

It was another client – who also happened to be Harris’ best friend – who set them up in 2013.

“Kamala Harris…. How do I know that name?” Emhoff asked Chrisette Hudlin, after she told him he and Harris would make a great couple. Reminded that Harris was, at the time, California’s attorney general, Emhoff exclaimed: “Oh my god! She’s hot!”

Describing his awkward first phone call to Harris during an April YouTube interview, Emhoff compared it to another movie scene, this one from the 1996 film “Swingers.” Emhoff had left Harris a long, rambling voice message. Convinced it was disastrous, he nonetheless resisted the urge to try again, avoiding escalating the cringe level that Jon Favreau’s character had ratcheted up with each message he’d left.

Harris returned Emhoff’s call. She also replays the message every year on their anniversary. (Their sixth anniversary fell two days after the Democratic National Convention.)

Emhoff has his own saved voice mail: a congratulatory call from Biden after Harris and Emhoff got engaged in March 2014. They married that August, in a civil ceremony officiated by Harris’ sister, Maya. Harris hung a flower garland around Emhoff’s neck in honor of her Indian heritage. Emhoff stomped a glass following Jewish wedding tradition.

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It was Harris’ first marriage and Emhoff’s second. His son and daughter – named Cole and Ella after jazz legends Cole Porter and Ella Fitzgerald – came up with their own name for their stepmother: Mamala.

“To my brother and me, you’ll always be `Mamala,’ the world’s greatest stepmom,” Ella said in a video montage introducing Harris before her convention speech. “You’re a rock, not just for our dad, but for three generations of our big, blended family.”

Ella Emhoff, stepdaughter of Sen. Kamala Harris, speaks as she and other family members nominate Harris for Vice President of the United States during the Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center.

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Becoming a political spouse

Although Harris was already attorney general of the most populous state in the nation when they met, Emhoff saw her as “another busy successful lawyer” rather than someone who would soon be competing at the highest levels of politics.

His crash course as a political spouse began when Harris ran for the Senate in 2016.

She pokes fun at him, in her 2019 memoir, for taking the bait when a reporter asked who would play them in a movie about their lives. 

“I deflected,” she wrote in “The Truths We Hold.” “Doug was not as prudent. He answered the question and the resulting article said he was `delighted’ at the prospect of being played by Bradley Cooper.”

(Emhoff looks less like an older version of Cooper and more like a younger Gene Hackman.) 

Emhoff still felt unprepared when Harris launched her presidential bid, two years after she joined the Senate. Soon, however, Emhoff was doing solo events so they could “divide and conquer.”

Speaking to audiences about why they should vote for his wife, Emhoff tapped his courtroom-honed skills of speaking extemporaneously, answering questions and being ready to turn on a dime.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-California), left, and her husband Douglas Emhoff wave to the crowd as they ride in a car during the San Francisco Pride Parade last month. Throughout her Bay Area political career, Harris worked to appeal to a broad array of voters to win posts as District Attorney, Attorney General and Senator.

The most meaningful events to him were not addressing crowds of thousands, however, but traveling to places like rural Nevada where he met children whose parents died of a drug overdose. Or visiting Flint, Michigan, where residents were struggling with environmental and economic burdens.

“It just really opened my eyes, and it made me a better surrogate because I was able to bring what I'd call `Notes from the Field,’” Emhoff told Chasten Buttigieg – the husband of former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg – during their YouTube conversation in April. “I would always come back from these trips and do a download and just say, `Look. This is what's going on and we need to focus on this, this and this.’ You get overwhelmed because you just want to help all these folks and you want to help the campaign.”

At a more lighthearted event, Emhoff’s dance moves during a San Francisco’s gay pride celebration in 2019 got more than 200,000 views on Twitter – which Emhoff then tried to turn into campaign cash. “If I can do these dad moves with my dad bod, then hopefully you all can help finish 2Q fundraiser as strong as possible,” he tweeted.

His spousal social media presence was topped only by Chasten Buttigieg, with whom Emhoff bonded during the primary campaign. Chasten Buttigieg was the first person to text Emhoff when Harris dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination, two months before the first vote was cast.

“The thing I loved about Doug is, he's just a chill dude,” Chasten Buttigieg told David Axelrod on a recent episode of “The Axe Files” podcast. “He's not a politician. His doing his thing because he loves his wife.”

During debates, Emhoff and Buttigieg would text each other supportive emojis as their spouses competed.

“And we’re on the stage, looking down and thinking, `Why are you texting? You’re not watching me!’” Harris said with a laugh when Emhoff and Buttigieg recalled, during their April discussion, about how they got through the debates.

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Quarantining with Kamala 

Not long after leaving behind the non-stop travel of a presidential campaign, Emhoff and Harris went into lockdown mode.

The pandemic closed Emhoff’s Los Angeles office, enabling him to share full-time their D.C. apartment.  

Harris quickly learned that her husband had not been required to clean his room growing up. Saturday became “chores day.”

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and her husband Doug Emhoff smile during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

That was just one of the adjustments he made.

“Imagine being quarantined with Kamala Harris,” Emhoff said during the “Lawyers for Biden” fundraiser. “She's relentless. The work ethic. The getting up in the morning and the focus. I'm just sitting there in my gym shorts and my T-shirt going, `I better up my game.'… So, as I hope my partners can attest, I just really buckled in and I was raising my hand for everything and I just worked as hard as I've ever worked because there was Kamala Harris in the other room: `Watcha doing, Dougie?’”

As the days – and then hours and minutes – ticked down to the August call informing Harris whether she would be Biden’s running mate or an also-ran, Harris was “cool as a cucumber and I was a mess,” Emhoff recalled.

His head was still spinning on the final night of the convention. Emhoff wanted to make sure he knew what to do after Biden finished his acceptance speech.

“It's so much hustle and bustle and then you see the script which is, you know, `Get out there and walk and then circulate.’ And I’m like, `Wait. What? Let me see it again. Let me see it again. I want to make sure I'm in the right place,’” Emhoff recalled.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, and his wife Jill Biden, join Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and her husband Doug Emhoff, during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.

So much `kvelling'

When the two couples walked out of Wilmington’s Chase Center to a stage erected in the parking lot in front of supporters sitting in socially-distanced cars, fireworks exploded overhead. Still not used to the whole grab-hands-and-wave-to-the-crowd routine, Emhoff said he was “kind of fidgeting – which my mom brought up to me.”

Fidgeting aside, both parents are “kvelling” about their son and daughter-in-law.

The Emhoff family has been Zooming every Sunday, come “hell or high water,” on a call run by his dad, the “poppa bear” who makes sure everyone gets to talk and that there’s a substantive conversation.

Emhoff hasn’t missed a call since the campaign began. But he gets “a little cranky” when the conversation becomes too focused on campaign stuff and not enough on what the rest of the family is doing.

“It’s like …`Google me. You know what’s going on,’” Emhoff recently recounted. “`Just let me hear what's going on with you.’”

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