On Wednesday afternoon, as Joe Biden for the first time publicly spoke alongside running mate Kamala Harris, he took a moment to address yet a potentially historic aspect of the California senator’s presence on his presidential ticket.
It wasn’t that Harris would make history as the nation’s first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president if Biden wins in the fall. It was that her husband, Doug Emhoff, an accomplished entertainment lawyer, would make history, too: He would be the nation’s first second gentleman.
“Doug, you’re going to have to learn what it means to be a barrier-breaker yourself in this job you’re about to take on,” Biden said.
Emhoff’s path to that prospective first-of-its-kind title has been anything but intentional. Along the way, as Harris has emerged as a rising political star, he’s spoken candidly about his love for his wife, has had to defend her from attacks both physical and online and has even enjoyed a bit of his own fandom on social media.
Emhoff has talked about what he’s learned from being on the campaign trail with Harris during her own presidential bid — remarks that may represent a preview for how he positions himself amid much more public attention now.
“To actually meet people of all kinds all around the country and really listen and really hear what’s going on in their lives…For a kid who grew up in New York and L.A., and spent most of my life in New York, L.A., San Francisco and D.C., it just really opened my eyes,” Emhoff said about Harris’ failed 2020 bid during an April virtual Biden campaign event.
An entertainment lawyer from Brooklyn
Emhoff, who like Harris is 55, was born in Brooklyn and spent the first few years of his life there, before his father, a women’s shoe designer, moved the family to New Jersey. When Emhoff was in high school, the family moved again, to Los Angeles.
“We went from like central Jersey to ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ era L.A.,” Emhoff quipped in April.
He stayed in the area for college and law school, earning degrees from California State University, Northridge and the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
Emhoff later entered the field of entertainment law, working as a litigator at various firms. He is currently a partner at DLA Piper, based in the firm’s Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles offices.
Emhoff has two adult children — Cole and Ella, named for jazz legends John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald — with his first wife, Kerstin Emhoff. The marriage ended in divorce but the pair “remain incredibly close,” Emhoff has said. Both Emhoff and Harris have spoken frequently about the warm relationship between Harris and her stepchildren, with both noting that they refer to their stepmom as “Momala.”
Blind date with the ‘hot’ state AG
Emhoff was working in Los Angeles when a client meeting led to a blind date with Harris that both he and she have often joked about.
“I was just a dude, a lawyer, and then I met Kamala on a blind date, set up by legendary filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, who did ‘House Party,'” and his wife, Emhoff said.
Emhoff recalled that, at a business meeting with Hudlin and his wife Chrisette, a close friend of Harris, Chrisette said she wanted to set him up with her pal. Emhoff said that as soon as Hudlin mentioned Harris’ name, he remembered she was the attorney general and responded, “Oh my god, she’s hot.”
Hudlin gave Emhoff her number and he texted that night from a Los Angeles Lakers game. As Harris described in her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” Emhoff called her, too — a bold move, Harris wrote, that she found “endearing.”
“The morning after our first date, Doug emailed me with a list of his available dates for the next couple of months. ‘I’m too old to play games or hide the ball,’ the email read. ‘I really like you, and I want to see if we can make this work,'” Harris recalled in her memoir.
Amid a months-long romance that spanned the state of California, the couple fell in love and were engaged in March 2014. They got married later that year in a small ceremony officiated by Harris’ sister Maya.
Entering the world of politics
Emhoff has recalled in multiple interviews that his emergence as a political spouse was gradual. It wasn’t until Harris’ run for an open U.S. Senate seat in California in 2016 that it dawned on him what it meant to be married to a fast-rising political star.
“When we met, when she was attorney general, it was just two busy professionals at that age…trying to balance two jobs and two cities,” he said in April. “But it really hit me after we got married…and when Sen. Barbara Boxer decided not to run.”
“That was really ‘welcome to politics.’ In that race is when I really became a political spouse, doing events,” he said.
By the time Harris launched her presidential run he was a regular on the trail.
He recalled “freaking out” while waving to the crowd at Harris’ announcement for her White House run in January 2019.
“It’s like, holy ‘F’,” he said. “We thought there’d be 5,000 people there” — but more than 20,000 attended the event in Oakland, Calif., her campaign estimated.
Later in 2019, during a stop in Flint, Michigan — a visit where Emhoff quietly met with community leaders about the city’s water crisis — that he was deeply moved. “That was probably the most impactful thing I ever did. It just stuck with me,” he has said.
At the same time, Emhoff also created a fun persona on social media throughout his wife’s presidential campaign. He frequently posted photos of himself in campaign gear and, memorably, a video of him dancing at San Francisco Pride, in 2019, to help boost fundraising.
Emhoff made headlines, and earned wide praise, during her campaign for fiercely defending his wife from attacks — both physical and virtual.
In June 2019, a man rushed a stage at a forum where Harris was speaking and grabbed the microphone from her hand. One of the several people who confronted the intruder and helped drag him off the stage was Emhoff.
The angry expression on his face that emerged as he jumped into the fray made waves on Twitter.
“I love @KamalaHarris and would do anything for her,” he tweeted later.
Weeks later, Harris was attacked again — this time with a racially charged retweet by President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. that questioned Harris’ race. The retweet, which came following a clash between Harris and Biden during the first Democratic primary debate over racial issues, was later deleted, but not before several reporters took screenshots of it.
Emhoff took to Twitter later that night to forcefully condemn the earlier message as “vile, shameful, racist, sexist b/s.”
Harris ended her presidential campaign in December, endorsed Biden in March and immediately entered the national conversation about likely Biden running mates — a period of time that overlapped with the pandemic, stay-at-home orders, economic collapse and national protests for racial justice.
Staying true to his supportive style, Emhoff, during the April virtual campaign event, plied his wife with praise — both as a Biden campaign surrogate and for her recent work in the Senate pushing for police reform and financial relief for Americans hit by economic hardship — while also trying to not draw too much attention to himself.
“I’m trying to do my legal work and deal with all these issues for clients,” he said. “And she’s trying to save the world.”