Doug Emhoff prepares to break new ground as America’s second gentleman | Kamala Harris

As the first female vice-president and the first woman of colour to be nominated for the role, Kamala Harris has made history with her journey to the White House.

Jill Biden, wife of president-elect Joe Biden, is expected to assume the title of first lady. Spouses of previous vice-presidents were given the informal designation of second lady.

But now, as a result of Harris’s successes, her husband, Doug Emhoff, will break new ground too – as the US’s first second gentleman.

The 56-year-old entertainment lawyer and father-of-two from California is also thought to be the first Jewish person to assume the “second spouse” role.

At Biden’s first joint appearance with Harris as his running mate, the incoming president said: “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.”

But already he appears to be reveling in the role.

“I’m not overly political,” he told Marie Claire in October. “I’m overly her husband.”

Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff at the Democratic National Convention
Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff at the Democratic national convention in Wilmington, Delaware, on 19 August. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

His bio on Twitter, where he posted a steady stream of pictures and videos from the campaign trail, reads: “Dad, @kamalaharris hubby, lawyer, wannabe golfer, advocate for justice and equality.”

But he is not just an enthusiastic cheerleader. He has also proved to be an effective campaigner.

Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor and Biden-Harris national co-chair, recently told the Washington Post that Emhoff was their “secret weapon” on the campaign trail.

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said he appeared to be a “real hit”, both during the primaries and for the Biden campaign.

“A good sign that someone is a good campaigner is when he or she is sent out alone and doesn’t have to go with the spouse or the family member. That was the secret to the Kennedy family.”

Emhoff, who lived in Brooklyn and New Jersey as a child before his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a teenager, said travelling the country during the primaries, when Harris was mounting her own bid for president, “really opened my eyes”.

He would report back from his trips with “notes from the field”, he told Chasten Buttigieg, whose husband, Pete, also ran for president, in a YouTube interview.

Although he campaigned with Harris during her Senate campaign, he said his first events for the presidential race were “trial by fire”. He said he tried to “speak from the heart” about Harris and drew from his experience in court as a lawyer.

Buttigieg, who works as a teacher, said he found Emhoff “disarming” when he first met him at a Democratic primary debate in June 2019, where they were both watching their spouses. Both “fish out of water” in the political world, they went on to become good friends.

He said Emhoff will make a “great second gentleman, because he’s somebody who very much wants to help and be of service and there’s really no facade there, so that’s a good thing”.

Harris and Emhoff at the San Francisco Pride Parade on 30 June, 2019.
Harris and Emhoff at the San Francisco Pride Parade on 30 June 2019. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

He added: “Doug does a very good job at making people smile, making people feel included, talking about things in a way that other people can easily grasp. It’s just really important, whatever he chooses to do, that he holds on to that and continues being the Doug that other people fell in love with, someone that they could see themselves in.”

Emhoff and Harris met on a blind date in 2013 after being set up by Harris’s friend, Chrisette Hudlin. Emhoff said it was “love at first sight”. They got married the following year. Harris became stepmother, or “Momala”, to his two children, Cole, 26, and Ella, 21, from his first marriage to film producer Kerstin Emhoff, with whom the couple are both close. “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional,” Harris wrote in Elle last year.

When they met, Harris was California’s attorney general, but Emhoff has said he had no idea they would end up on the presidential campaign trail. When she launched her campaign to run for the US Senate in 2015, he said he started to feel like a “political spouse” and now, just five years later, he is preparing to accompany her to the top of US politics.

It is a significant moment, said Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, for a presidency that has been “characterised by gender and masculinity”.

Harris’s election as the first female vice-president challenges those norms, she said. And, in turn, so will Emhoff. “Disrupting some of these gendered expectations of presidential office-holders in swapping what has been assumed to be a dominant role for the male partner and a support role for the female partner.”

But any differences with a man in the role will stem from public expectation rather than any changes to the job itself, she said. She predicts he is unlikely to continue his own career due to potential conflicts of interest.

Traditionally, Perry said, second ladies have worked on “soft power” issues such as healthcare, literacy and nutrition.

Emhoff has reportedly said he wants to focus on justice-related issues.

“We tend to put women who’ve been in these roles in these boxes, and we don’t let them beyond a certain limit,” said Perry. “And it will be interesting to see how we treat Doug Emhoff. Will the difference in gender allow him to do more?”

He is likely to collaborate with the incoming first lady, Jill Biden, who held the position of second lady during the Obama-Biden administration and has described the role as a “powerful platform”. The pair appear to have had a good relationship campaigning together and Emhoff said they have been “bonding” ever since the primaries, when they chatted backstage.

“She continued to teach and be a professor while she was second lady for all those eight years,” said Perry. “Between the two of them as non-traditional spouses, will they form a new paradigm for both first lady and second gentleman?”


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