When a collection of high-powered lawyers from across the country gather on a Zoom meeting next week that is expected to raise more than $1 million for the Democratic presidential ticket, one headliner will be a man whose name is still unfamiliar to most Americans: Doug Emhoff.
The mild-mannered husband of Sen. Kamala Harris, Emhoff has placed his thriving Los Angeles entertainment law practice on hold to support his wife’s bid for vice president. But all those decades walking the halls of the nation’s largest law firms are not being wasted in the high-dollar arena of presidential politics.
“Doug has a lot of connections with lawyers, not only in L.A. but around the country,” said Aaron H. Jacoby, a longtime friend who joined up with Emhoff early in their careers to start a boutique litigation firm, which was later acquired by a much larger one. “He’s very engaged in doing these Zoom meetings and fundraising events. He’s the draw.”
While former Vice President Joe Biden has long raised money in legal circles, Emhoff has brought the campaign a fresh rolodex of attorneys who may not have been tapped for support by national campaigns, said two top fundraisers for the Biden-Harris ticket, who asked not to be named because they did not have consent from the campaign to talk to reporters.
The pace of fundraising events is always bruising as the candidates slingshot out of the political convention and, at least virtually, onto the trail. But friends say Emhoff has adapted quickly. And because there is limited ability to travel, he is ramping up his appearances, scheduling dozens of virtual events over the next crucial weeks.
“Doug knows where the money is in law firms,” said Peter Zeughauser, a lawyer and longtime fundraiser for Harris. “He has a nose for it.”
While Emhoff may know California best, he has been widening his outreach to law firms in Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and Texas. The fact that the coronavirus pandemic has curtailed his ability to travel in person to all those states has brought an unexpected benefit.
“It’s almost all Zoom stuff, which for Doug, it’s great,” one of the Democratic fundraisers said of the popular video conferencing program. “He can do 10 events in a day if he wants to.”
On Wednesday, that meant appearing – virtually – before a group of about three dozen environmental and business leaders who paid $1,000 each to Zoom with Emhoff and top campaign aides for an hour.
Dressed in a blue blazer, a polo shirt and jeans, he addressed the group from in front of a row of flags. The 55-year-old attorney appeared to be well aware that he is a new name and face to many of those supporting the presidential ticket – and repeated a bio he has used in a series of events, which boils it all down to a few quick sentences.
"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,” he said. “I went on to college and law school in L.A., became a dad to Cole and Ella... . I’ve enjoyed a very rewarding career as an entertainment lawyer. I’m now on leave from my firm so I can work full time with everyone else to help Joe and Kamala win.”
The drum-beat of the introductory events appears to be paying off. The campaign announced Wednesday that, along with the Democratic National Committee, the Biden-Harris ticket brought in a record-setting haul in August -- more than $364 million.
The campaign declined to make Emhoff available for an interview, or say how much Emhoff’s events have raised. But he has been busy. During the final week of the month, Emhoff was headlining separate events with lawyers and Jewish leaders in Florida, introducing singer-songwriter James Taylor at a fundraising event beamed out from Delaware, and speaking to a virtual caucus for the LGBT community.
An unexpected move into politics
For a divorced political novice who met Harris, then-California Attorney General, on a blind date in 2013 and married her the next year, the changes have come quickly. Emhoff has talked openly about the unexpected journey he is now taking.
"Okay, time for some real talk first," Emhoff said during the LGBT event last week. "Being out here on the presidential campaign trail talking about Joe and Kamala is not something I've ever really expected to be doing."
Long before he joined the team taking on the nation’s first reality-TV president, Emhoff actually built his own reality show connections.
Emhoff’s Los Angeles litigation practice had an eclectic mix of clients – representing such powerful corporations as Walmart and Abbott Labs, but also a Malibu real estate agent that found fame on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." Representing an advertising agency, Emhoff also took on the Taco Bell chihuahua and won.
“Doug is known for tackling and resolving the toughest problems -- whether by aggressively litigating high-stakes cases in the public glare or acting as a trusted advisor behind the scenes,” is how he is described on the website of his law firm, DLA Piper, which announced his leave of absence in August.
The firm has a significant presence in Washington, D.C., billing more than $4.5 million in lobbying fees so far this year, according to Senate filings. Firm clients have included blue chip companies such as Comcast and Qualcomm, which are regulated by the federal government, and others such as Raytheon and Booz Allen Hamilton, which have sizeable federal contracts.
But Emhoff’s friends and colleagues said he has always taken pains to avoid any appearance of a conflict with Harris’s wide portfolio of government work.
With the transition to national stage, a careful eye on conflicts
When he first started dating Harris in California, he took immediate steps to erect barriers between his marriage and his legal practice, Jacoby said, who was partnered with Emhoff when they sold their boutique practice to Venable, a large national firm.
“If the firm had anything before her office, Doug made it clear he would have to be completely screened out of it,” Jacoby said.
While his wife rose rapidly through the political ranks in California, Emhoff developed a track record as a litigator whose focus was in the courtroom, not the court of public opinion.
In 2009, he represented employees of a grocery chain accused of secretly rehiring hundreds of locked-out employees under false names and false social security numbers to help fend off the labor actions from the grocery workers union. The case ended with a plea agreement in 2010.
And he handled such cases as the defense of California luxury real estate broker Mauricio Umansky, who is married to "Real Housewives" star Kyle Richards – defending him in a dispute over a multi-million-dollar Malibu real estate deal gone bad. That case is ongoing. Umansky did not return calls seeking comment.
Only when Harris’s political rise began to point towards a national campaign did Emhoff’s career start to undergo a transition.
In her memoir, "The Truths We Hold," Harris wrote that Emhoff had “to get used to a new kind of scrutiny” when she launched her campaign for president in January of 2019.
“We still laugh about the time a reporter asked me who would play me in a movie about my life,” Harris wrote. “I deflected -- said I didn’t know. Doug was not as prudent. He answered the question and the resulting article said he was “delighted” at the prospect of being played by Bradley Cooper."
One friend and fundraiser, who spoke on the condition he not be named because he did not have approval to speak with media, said Emhoff has professed an interest in working on legal aid for the poor and criminal justice reform if he winds up serving as the nation’s first, “second gentleman.”
“If they win, it will be history,” his friend said. “He would want to create his own niche and want to use that platform to create good in the world.”
One sacrifice he will likely have to make, ethics experts told ABC News, is the type of private legal work he has mastered during a long and successful career.
Don Fox, who served as general counsel at the Office of Government Ethics until 2013, said he would advise Emhoff to sever all ties with his law firm and avoid private law practice entirely if Harris becomes the next vice president.
It’s likely, Fox said, that campaign lawyers have already said to him, “We need to know every single client and we need to know the work that you did up to the point that we don’t violate attorney-client privilege for that client” to ensure he avoids conflicts.
Those who know Emhoff well said they have no doubt he will adapt. Jennifer Levin was a graduating student at USC law school when Emhoff, an alum, recruited her into her first legal job and the two wound up working together as co-counsel on a number of cases at Venable.
She told ABC News she thinks Emhoff is ready to serve as the first man married to a U.S. vice president.
“I have no idea how that will look for him,” Levin told ABC News. “My reaction is that he will take on that job in the same way he takes on any job -- to figure out how best to do it and put the best plan into action.”