AUSTIN, Texas — Doug Emhoff wears the title of second gentleman as the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, but he is no stranger to the idea of gender equity.
Emhoff was interviewed by MSNBC Host Symone Sanders during a session in the SXSW Studio on Wednesday. Emhoff said he willingly, and gladly, quit his job to join his spouse in Washington, D.C., but the magnitude of the decision didn’t hit him until Inauguration Day.
“The campaign — it was odd — because it was right in the middle of COVID. It was a lot of virtual events and the live events that we did. It was me, and the soon-to-be vice president screaming at cars and trying to get people excited,” Emhoff said. “You don’t realize what you’re getting into until you’re there. There’s no rulebook.”
But it was that Inauguration Day, as his wife was being sworn in, that it really hit Emhoff how enormous the job was, to be there to support the first woman vice president. Suddenly, a California entertainment attorney had a role to play in a presidential administration.
“Really, that was really the moment. I was, like, ‘Alright, get in the game. This is a real position,’” Emhoff said. “I’m really here to support the first woman vice president, who happens to be my wife. That’s the only reason I’m here, to support her.”
Or, as interviewer Symone Sanders put it, being part of a presidential administration probably wasn’t on Emhoff’s bingo card. Sanders worked in Harris’ communications office before leaving to take a job as a host on MSNBC.
Emhoff brushes off the compliments people offer — that he left his high-powered job to support his wife — because it’s the type of sacrifice spouses make all the time. And their marriage is one of equals, where they support each other.
“I like to say, ‘She’s an awesome wife,’” Emhoff told Sanders. “You know, I get all this credit for being this great husband. Whether I am or not, she’s an amazing partner. The reason I’m able to do this, to sit here on this stage and do all these things as second gentleman, is because she supports me.”
Giving up his job to support his wife, Emhoff said, was a no-brainer, especially in a country facing so many challenges after the last administration.
“I’ve said publicly I did this without any saltiness and no chip on my shoulder,” Emhoff said. “It wasn’t begrudging. It was really leaning in and then, all of a sudden, I realized, ‘Wow, I get to have a microphone to advocate for issues that always have been important to me, as a person and as a lawyer.’”
Over the last two years, Emhoff also has recognized the fact he has an important role to play as the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president.
“I didn’t realize that being Jewish would be a big deal, and it turns out, it’s a pretty big deal not only for the Jewish community, but for a lot of communities that are experiencing hate and abuse and violence,” Emhoff said. “It’s important that I live openly and proudly as a proud American Jew, so we have a mezuzah near the wall at the front door. We do menorahs and celebrated Rosh Hoshannah.”
When people see that representation, it strikes a chord, Emhoff said, just like the fact Kamala Harris is Black has been meaningful to the country and the world.
Being on the campaign trail, and in the administration, has sometimes meant ignoring the noise and the jabs that come with political life. The one piece of advice former President Barack Obama gave him was to ignore the social media and forget about comments on the stories.
“You can’t be part of the problem. You’ve got to be part of the solution because it’s your partner who is running and, especially if it’s a woman, it’s just tough out there,” Emhoff said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be there for support and not put gasoline on the fire.”
And at certain points during the last two years — like the day Roe v Wade was overturned — Emhoff has heard, not only from his wife, but also from his daughter and mother. All three were concerned and alarmed with the direction of the country, he said.
“This is all about power. This is all about beating people down, especially women,” Emhoff said, drawing applause. “It can’t stand. It cannot stand, so that’s why my wife has been traveling around the country since this hit. She’s going to Iowa tomorrow to talk about this pushback, this taking away of a right. It’s not just about abortion. It’s about having the government decide what a woman can do with her body.”