One night in 2017, Doug Emhoff settled in at a restaurant table at the Hotel NoMad, a luxury spot in Manhattan, with his ex-wife, a Los Angeles film producer, and his wife of three years, a freshly minted U.S. senator from California.
Defying cliché, the two women — Kerstin Emhoff and Kamala Harris — had become good friends. Harris, now the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, launched into a story that evening about how she had recently awakened to hear Doug Emhoff drop a surprise announcement: They were going on a trip. He’d planned everything.
Kerstin Emhoff nearly spit out her wine, she recalled in an interview. This was not the driven attorney with whom she had spent more than two decades, a man whose idea of a good time was spending hours on a golf course, endlessly watching sports on TV or attending pro basketball games.
“I’m so much better than I was before,” he said.
Gobsmacked, his ex-wife smiled, and turned to Harris.
“I don’t know what you’ve done to this man,” she said. “But it’s great.”
Just three years later, the evolved hubby has become one of the unexpected breakout figures in the 2020 campaign, a headliner in the unconventional, pandemic-plagued race for the White House. If his wife and her running mate, Joe Biden, are elected, Harris would accumulate several firsts: first female vice president, first Black Veep, first No. 2 born to Indian American and Jamaican American parents.
Her husband also represents a potentially gender-role-reversing and groundbreaking history maker. He’s the high-powered professional who has sidelined career to support his wife’s sky-high aspirations — even as his work life is creating a prickly conundrum over possible conflicts of interest if Harris takes office.
He would not only be the first male spouse of a vice president, making him — wait for it — the first second husband, but he has also become the Great Jewish Hope. A winning Democratic ticket would make him the first Jew in the quartet of presidents, vice presidents and their spouses. He’s been called a mensch so many times that it may as well be on his business cards.
“Obviously there’s a tremendous amount of nachas to have one of our own in that role,” says Alex Weingarten, a former Emhoff law partner who is a prominent leader in the Los Angeles Jewish community, invoking a Yiddish word for pride.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who is also Jewish, envisions Emhoff as an antidote for “the poison that has infected the country.”
On a bright fall afternoon in mid-October, Doug Emhoff spent his 56th birthday asking for votes in parking lots across Virginia. The humble settings couldn’t be more different from his wife’s perch that day: the elegant committee chambers inside the Capitol where senators were considering whether to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett.
At a Loudoun County park, Emhoff popped out of a huge SUV to greet supporters who trickled past him in honking cars after collecting election materials. In his Biden-Harris T-shirt, jeans and Stan Smiths, he’d almost shed the look of the L.A. attorney. But not quite. The nicely fit, courtroom-ready jacket hints at what he was.
A man pounded a drum at ear-shattering volume, and Emhoff bobbed along with the beat. His penchant for spontaneous boogieing has become a thing — a 2019 video of him dancing in a convertible with Harris, who was then running for the Democratic presidential nomination, at the San Francisco Pride Parade went viral. In a tweet, Emhoff repurposed the video into a self-effacing fundraising pitch, cracking about making “dad moves with my dad bod.”
In the year-and-a-half since, Emhoff has become such a hit for posting candid moments from the campaign and puppy-love images of him and Harris that he’s spawned a hashtag: #Doughive, a play off the Beyoncé fans’ BeyHive.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who has campaigned with Emhoff, called the unassuming lawyer an election-year “sensation.” Yet Emhoff, a man of medium height with a receding, graying hairline, a relaxed manner and far-from-imposing presence, is still a relative unknown to the average voter.
Drawn by the sound of the drum, Cari Monroe, an off-duty nurse, wandered over with her squirmy 3-year-old. Which man was Emhoff, she wondered. When someone pointed him out, she said: “He walked right past me! I didn’t even recognize him.”
Later that day, Emhoff ticked through campaign talking points before a socially distanced crowd of several dozen in Fairfax County: Trump is out to destroy Obamacare, the country needs a “green revolution,” Republicans are up to “shenanigans” to suppress turnout in the Nov. 3 election. It’s bland as buttered toast. But the audience hasn’t come for podium-pounding; they’ve mostly come to see history in the making.
“What are we going to call him?” said Mary Alexander, a 73-year-old retired naturalist.
Oops. She quickly rejected that one because it’s an acronym that means first lady of the United States.
“FHOUS,” she wondered aloud.
No. First Husband of the United States doesn’t sound right, either.
“SHOUS!” she said, pronouncing it like “show us.” “That’s it. Second Husband of the United States!”
Emhoff grasps the political art of settling on an origin story and then setting it on repeat. His version goes like this: Born in Brooklyn. Raised in New Jersey. Happy memories of Jewish summer camp, where he won some athletic awards. Moved to suburban Los Angeles when he was in high school because his father got a new job. Bar Mitzvah in a corny suit.
Emhoff, who declined to be interviewed for this story, graduated from Cal State Northridge, whose reputation is miles behind the prestigious factories of the big University of California system universities. Aaron Jacoby, a former law partner of Emhoff, says his friend’s second-tier undergraduate degree may have inspired him to overachieve when he stepped it up several notches by getting his law degree from the University of Southern California and later beginning his legal career with an overriding urge to prove himself.
After law school, Emhoff made the obligatory stop at a large firm but eventually formed his own practice with Jacoby and another attorney in a quirky former entertainment company building they found in Beverly Hills — a fancy residential ZIP code, but removed from the locus of Los Angeles legal swagger in the glass towers of Century City.
Jacoby and Emhoff had met in a Lamaze class when their first wives were pregnant, and they saw each other through each of their divorces. While Jacoby was going through his breakup, he says, Emhoff demonstrated a radar for detecting when he was lonely and needed to be taken to dinner.
Their firm quickly boomed, and they became regulars at the upscale lunch spots within walking distance, an outward sign of their success. Others might have needed reservations, but they did not. In the years to come, Emhoff straddled a line — rising star, but never too showy. An avid golfer with a handicap in the teens, according to friends, Emhoff joined Hillcrest, an historically Jewish country club formed when others rarely admitted Jews. It wasn’t one of the fanciest in their image-conscious world, “but fancy enough,” Jacoby said.
Emhoff was the convener, the rainmaker, the organized one, the one who saw the future. He persuaded Jacoby to overcome his reluctance to fold into Venable, where he was able to scale their practice and supersize the larger firm’s West Coast presence. Later DLA Piper lured him to do the same.
Building teams was his forte, says Weingarten, his partner at Venable. When they worked on cases together, they’d good-cop, bad-cop the opposing side. Emhoff was always the good cop.
At Venable, he was set up on a blind date with Harris, who was California’s attorney general. Their origin story is finely honed, too, laid out in Harris’ 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold.” Emhoff texted her from a Los Angeles Lakers game. He left her a long, rambling voice mail by way of introduction; it was awkward but she found it endearing. She flew down to Los Angeles for their first date. Early the next morning, Emhoff sent her an email: “I’m too old to play games, or hide the ball. I really like you and I want to see if we can make this work.”
The budding relationship was sotto voce.
I’ve met someone but “can’t say anything about her,” Emhoff would say. Jacoby kept guessing it was a starlet.
Once Jacoby and others found out he was dating California’s chief law-enforcement official, they teased Emhoff that he’d better make it work, “otherwise he’s going to jail.”
Harris and Emhoff had a small wedding — her first — in Santa Barbara in 2014. Harris, who attended a Pentecostal church as a child, partook in the Jewish tradition of breaking a glass.
Soon, Kerstin Emhoff found herself inviting Harris and her ex to a Christmas Eve celebration. Harris clicked with Emhoff’s children from his first marriage: Cole, who was named for jazz legend John Coltrane; and Ella, named for Ella Fitzgerald.
“We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost too functional,” Harris wrote in her memoir.
When Harris ran for Senate in 2016, Emhoff was mostly a bystander, occasionally showing up at events to say things, such as “Isn’t Kamala Harris great? I love her,” he recalled in a singsong voice during a virtual fundraiser with former late-night host David Letterman. Now he’s crisscrossing the country as one of the campaign’s main attractions.
At the vice-presidential debate, he walked up to congratulate his wife while wearing a mask. Across the stage, his counterpart, Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, was maskless, a contrast that emphasized the Trump administration’s flouting of the pleadings of health experts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (One of Harris’ staffers and a flight crew member tested positive for coronavirus earlier this month; both Harris and Emhoff have tested negative.)
“On the campaign trail,” says Los Angeles Mayor and Biden-Harris national co-chair Eric Garcetti, “he’s our secret weapon.”
In August, Emhoff announced a leave of absence from his law practice. He had continued working as an attorney while Harris was California’s attorney general, and during her campaigns for U.S. senator and the Democratic presidential nomination. This time it was different.
Political spouses seldom cause a ripple, but sometimes they can be a liability. Another would-be veep spouse — John Zaccaro, a real-estate titan who was the husband of Walter Mondale’s 1984 running mate, Geraldine Ferraro — caused a controversy when he initially refused to release his financial information and his practices as a landlord were criticized.
Emhoff presents a more complex set of questions. Over the years, alongside the boilerplate corporate and real estate work, he has sometimes represented heavily regulated companies or firms that might be frowned upon on the left.
He represented Merck in cases involving allegations that the drug Fosamax caused bone disease, an entanglement that could cause appearance problems given Democrats’ criticism of the drug industry. Even more touchy, his clients have included Abbott Laboratories in an OxyContin fraud case, and the arms dealer Dolarian Capital in a dispute related to a contract to transfer weapons from Romania to the Afghan military.
The cases that have gotten the most attention lately, though, have been the quirkiest. He succeeded in shielding an advertising agency from paying a massive judgment in a case involving the origins of the Chihuahua featured in Taco Bell advertisements. And he has represented Jukin, a California media company, in copyright infringement lawsuits related to a viral video of the so-called Pizza Rat dragging a big slice in a New York subway, and others with titles such as “2nd story beer pong dunk fail.”
The problem for Emhoff is that his firm, DLA Piper, has a Washington lobbying presence. Even if he could figure out a way to build a firewall between his legal work and the firm’s lobbying and government work, it’s likely that real or perceived conflicts of interest would be alleged by his wife’s political opponents. DLA Piper may be uncomfortable with Emhoff returning to the firm, according to two people familiar with the firm’s culture who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. DLA Piper declined to answer questions about Emhoff’s future.
There isn’t a clear-cut conflict-of-interest rule governing vice-presidential spouses, said Larry Noble, a government ethics expert who served as general counsel for the Federal Election Commission in Republican and Democratic administrations. But that won’t be Emhoff’s biggest problem, he said.
“The problem with appearances of conflicts of interest is that they undermine the public’s confidence in their government,” he said.
Deutch, the Florida congressman who has campaigned with Emhoff and is chair of the House Ethics committee, said he’s confident that Emhoff’s professional decisions will be driven entirely by what he can do to help Harris succeed. The decisions made by Deutch — who is also an attorney — could be a guide. When he was elected, he said, his “ability to represent clients ended.”
The closest parallel for Emhoff may be Marilyn Quayle, the wife of President George H.W. Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle. She made inquiries about resuming her legal career when her husband took office, but her plans fizzled amid conflict-of-interest sniping and reluctance within firms to open themselves to undue scrutiny.
“She gave up everything for her husband,” said Christian Josi, a longtime Quayle adviser and confidant. “My take is she was never entirely happy about it. But she sucked it up for the country and her husband.” (Marilyn Quayle could not be reached for comment.)
Although Emhoff’s future as a lawyer has generated unease, the possibility of his becoming the second gentleman has stirred curiosity among some in the Jewish community.
“They ask me if he really is Jewish — whatever that means,” said Jacoby, Emhoff’s former law partner. “And you say: ‘There’s a whole list of things. He is pro-Israel. They did break a glass at their wedding.’ All these things they want to know that are proving his level of Jewishness. It’s kind of funny.”
Emhoff establishing his Jewish bona fides could act as a counterweight to the slice of Jewish conservatives who support Trump for hard line pro-Israel rhetoric and for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem even as an overwhelming majority of American Jews oppose him and some prominent groups have labeled him an anti-Semite.
Friends say Emhoff is not a member of a temple and describe him as a less than observant Jew, who nonetheless identifies deeply with Judaism and has been shaped by its values. On a trip last year to Michigan, he went to Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with Marseille Allen, a local activist. When Allen told him that she’d recently converted to Judaism, the low-key Emhoff surprised her by throwing up his hands.
“Welcome to the tribe!” he said.
Emhoff has been vague about his plans if his wife is elected.
He mentioned his interest in pro-bono legal work during the recent virtual fundraiser with Letterman. He alerted his lawyer friends in the audience to expect a call from him seeking their assistance with efforts to “help people get access to legal services.” He also made some oblique references to helping his wife, and Joe and Jill Biden, bring together a country wracked by “so much pain” and troubled by a government that is mistrusted at home and abroad.
Not long ago, he participated in a virtual forum with PL+US, a group that advocates for paid family and caregiver leave, said Katie Bethell, the group’s founder and executive director. The group’s virtual events usually draw a few hundred attendees. When Emhoff appeared, they got 60,000.
“I’m doing what I always do: supporting Kamala, being there for her, loving her,” Emhoff told the audience, “and giving her whatever support she needs.”
Afterward Bethell says a girlfriend of hers sent a text message.
It read: “I want a Doug.”
The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this story.