Some men might shrink in the shadow of a superstar spouse.
Not Douglas Emhoff, the unabashed cheerleader in chief for his wife, California Sen. Kamala Harris. On Wednesday, she made history as the first woman of color nominated for vice president by a major political party. After her speech, a beaming Emhoff made his entrance, walking alongside another prominent plus-one — Jill Biden — onto a convention hall stage in Wilmington, Del. to join their headline-making partners. Emhoff seemed a little awkward at first, tugging at the hem of his suit jacket. Then he embraced Harris, gave her a quick kiss, and the couple waved to the cameras.
When Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, introduced his running mate last week, he told Emhoff: “Doug, you’re going to have to learn what it means to be a barrier-breaker yourself.”
If Biden and Harris win in November, Emhoff would become the nation’s first Second Gentleman.
It’s been an unlikely journey for the 55-year-old Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, who now finds himself in the inner circle of a presidential campaign. Emhoff, who lives in Brentwood, has seen his national profile swell, complete with his own fan club, the #DougHive — women who are thrilled by the novelty of a man comfortably taking a back seat in politics. He has more than 250,000 followers on Twitter, where he identifies himself as: “Dad, @KamalaHarris hubby, lawyer, wannabe golfer, advocate for justice and equality.” His posts, sometimes addressed to the #KHive, can tend toward the goofy.
For much of last year, his cellphone sported a sticker that read: “A Woman’s Place is in the White House.”
“He’s been 100% in his wife’s corner and supporting her any way he can,” attorney Matthew Johnson, one of Emhoff’s closest friends, said in an interview. Since meeting Harris seven years ago, Johnson said, Emhoff has been “smitten.”
Harris’ and Emhoff’s romance feels scripted by Hollywood. In some ways, it was.
Seven years ago, he was a divorced father of two, managing a respected Century City law firm with more than 60 attorneys. He’d been practicing law for two decades. Born in Brooklyn, he moved to California as a teen (he has an older sister and a younger brother) and accumulated strong Southern California bona fides: After attending Agoura High School and Cal State Northridge, he graduated from USC Law School.
Emhoff handled cases that weren’t particularly sexy: intellectual property disputes, false advertising and copyright infringement. He defended big-name corporate clients, including Walmart and pharmaceutical giant Merck. One of his more noteworthy cases was a successful defense of Taco Bell’s advertising agency, TBWA, in the early 2000s after the fast-food chain blamed it for ripping off the idea for the chihuahua who quipped “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” in TV commercials.
Over the years, Emhoff honed a reputation as having a soft touch with clients, patiently listening even when some “were being a little bit irrational,” said Johnson, a former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and a partner at the juggernaut entertainment firm Ziffren Brittenham. Johnson said he often referred people to Emhoff at Venable.
“He would give clients this cool-headed, thoughtful advice,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, he had to give them advice they didn’t want to hear.”
In 2013, prominent filmmaker Reginald Hudlin and his PR executive wife, Chrisette Hudlin, were grappling with a complex legal issue. They went to Venable’s offices, where they met with Emhoff.
“He impressed us with his ability to see the big picture and resolve conflict,” Chrisette Hudlin said in an email to The Times.
Hudlin then took a leap of faith. She gave Emhoff the cellphone number of her best friend, Harris, who was then California‘s attorney general. In her book, “The Truths We Hold,” Harris recounted the episode: “I was in the middle of a meeting, and my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing.” Harris wrote that after ignoring several calls from Hudlin, she finally called her back to check in.
“I just met this guy,” Hudlin told her friend. “He’s cute and he’s the managing partner of his law firm and I think you’re really going to like him.”
At the time, Harris was in her late 40s. She had never been married; dating was difficult due to the demands of her high-profile jobs, Harris wrote in her book.
A few nights later, Emhoff texted Harris from a L.A. Lakers game. (Harris replied “Go Lakers!” even though she’s a Golden State Warriors fan.) Harris was in San Francisco, where she owns a condo, and they eventually connected by phone and scheduled a date for that weekend, when she was planning to be in L.A.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Johnson, Emhoff’s friend. “The next day he called me up and said: ‘You are not going to believe who I went out to dinner with last night? … Kamala Harris.’ And I said, ‘Get the f— out of here! How did that happen?’”
Johnson had long been impressed with Harris, and had held fundraisers for her. He blurted out to Emhoff: “I love you like a brother, but Kamala is a serious person. You better not —
“And Doug said, ‘No, no, no. I’m dating Kamala,’” Johnson said.
Their relationship blossomed quickly. “He seemed so genuinely comfortable with himself,” Harris wrote. “That’s part of why I liked him immediately.”
Harris and Emhoff will celebrate their sixth anniversary this weekend. They were married at the Santa Barbara Courthouse in a small family ceremony officiated by Harris’ sister, Maya Harris. In honor of Harris’ Indian roots, she placed a flower garland around his neck. And Emhoff, who is Jewish, celebrated in tradition, by stomping on a glass.
Chrisette Hudlin said even early on, she had “a sneaking suspicion” that Harris and Emhoff would wed.
“They balance each other well because they agree on the most important things in life,” Hudlin said. “They work hard, but they also know how to take time to enjoy each other and family.”
In March, Emhoff flew to Washington for a planned long weekend with his wife. Then came the coronavirus shutdown and he has remained with Harris at their home in D.C., working remotely. During a video interview with an Ohio reporter last month, Emhoff described the experience: “It’s surreal working at home with Kamala Harris. It certainly upped my game.”
Over the last five years, according to Forbes, Emhoff and Harris have earned about $8.2 million, most of it generated by his work at Venable and DLA Piper, the Century City firm he joined in 2017. In Harris’ recent disclosure form, she listed more than $500,000 in book advance payments. Forbes estimates the couple’s net worth at nearly $6 million. More than a third of that amount comes from the value of their three homes — in Brentwood, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
The Biden-Harris campaign declined to make Emhoff, or family members, available for interviews.
Emhoff spoke briefly Thursday during a Democratic National Committee LGBT Caucus meeting, reading from a prepared text.
“Being out here on the presidential campaign trail talking about Joe and Kamala is not something I ever really expected to be doing,” Emhoff acknowledged.
“So a little about me. I was born in Brooklyn, raised in New Jersey, and then moved to L.A. in high school when my dad got a new job. I went on to college and law school in L.A., became a dad to Cole and Ella.”
Emhoff added that he’s had “a great career as an entertainment lawyer,” but is now on leave of absence from his current firm, DLA Piper, “so that I can work full time to help Joe and Kamala win.”
He also mentioned their upcoming wedding anniversary, noting that after he and Harris were engaged, “I got a congratulatory voicemail from none other than Joe Biden! … Believe it or not, I still have that message saved on my home [voicemail].”
“He’s just a wonderful guy: smart, grounded and wise. He’s easy to talk to and he’s also a really good listener,” said producer Matt Walden, a friend of Emhoff’s for nearly 30 years.
Before the pandemic, Walden and his powerhouse wife, Dana Walden, chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment, would enjoy occasional dinners out with the couple at Westside haunts, including Toscana in Brentwood. (Decades ago, Chrisette Hudlin introduced Dana Walden to Harris when Harris was a prosecutor. Hudlin said she met her husband on a blind date arranged by the Waldens.)
“A lot of what he and I spend time talking about is our families,” Matt Walden said. “He’s really proud of those kids; he is a committed dad.”
Emhoff has two children from his first marriage — Cole, 25, and Ella, 21 — named after Jazz greats John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.
Kerstin Emhoff, a documentary film producer (FX’s “AKA Jane Roe” and HBO’s “Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden”), divorced Doug Emhoff in 2010. Still, they maintain a friendly relationship, and refer to theirs as a blended modern family. In social media posts, Kerstin Emhoff makes it clear she’s in Harris’ corner.
Cole and Ella Emhoff call Harris “Momala.” On Wednesday, Ella Emhoff made her debut in the video montage of family members introducing Harris ahead of her history-making moment at the Democratic National Convention.
“You always knew [Harris] had larger political aspirations,” said Rich Frey, a trial attorney who used to work with Emhoff at Venable, but is now with Epstein Becker Green in Los Angeles.
“She’s very intelligent, a good advocate. We used to joke about it, before they got married, that she might become president,” Frey said. “But we didn’t know what his title would be: First Man? First Gentleman?”
Twice before, there has been a woman on major presidential ticket: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008 raised the possibility of a historic Second Gent. Both of those campaigns failed.
Should Biden and Harris defeat President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, Emhoff would define the standard for the male version of supporting spouse. It’s not clear what causes that Emhoff might champion, but his friends said they expect him to carve out an important role.
“And I’m sure that Doug would have a big impact, being married to the vice president,” said Johnson, his friend.
Frey, Emhoff’s former law partner, agreed.
“He’ll play the role of being supportive for his wife,” Frey said. “But the ambition here is not just VP. Even if Biden doesn’t win, she’s not going to be out of the national picture.”
Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.