In the blended Emhoff-Harris clan, as in families nationwide, there are two kinds of people: There are the texters and the voicemail-leavers.
Doug Emhoff—husband to Kamala Harris, father to Cole and Ella Emhoff—is a texter. Kamala Harris—current, historic vice presidential candidate, one of the busiest women on the planet at the moment—is a voicemail-leaver.
Harris has been logging 12-hour-plus marathon campaigning sessions, logging into back-to-back Zooms, or traveling to states like Georgia and Michigan to make the final case to voters, asking them to cast their ballots for former vice president Joe Biden in the imminent presidential election. Still—explains her stepdaughter Ella Emhoff—Harris remains stalwart. She picks up the phone, and she leaves a voicemail.
“It’ll just be something sweet like, ‘Hi, I was just thinking about you, hope your day is good,’ And then I call back! If you left voicemails,” Ella Emhoff, 21, tells her dad, with a pointed look and a laugh, “I think I would be more inclined to call back.”
From his square in Zoom, her father looks faux-wounded. “I thought nobody likes voicemails anymore!”
It’s Sunday afternoon, with just over a week to go until all the votes—including the millions that have been cast in states from New York to Wisconsin to Texas—are tallied. And in the meantime, the Emhoffs have agreed to let Glamour listen in on one of their frequent catch-up Zooms. Doug has just landed in Washington, D.C. Cole, 26, is in Los Angeles, at his mom Kerstin Emhoff’s house. Ella, who is a student at Parsons School of Design in New York, is home in her apartment.
For almost an hour, we’ve been talking about the important stuff—how Cole and Ella got to know the woman they call “Momala,” how it felt to learn that Biden had tapped Harris as his running mate. But now we’re stuck on the age-old parental question: How might Doug convince Ella to remember to call?
His go-to move until this point has been to text a series of heart emojis. Since the campaign kicked off, his formula has been “heart emoji, heart emoji, American flag,” he reports. (Cole is an easier sell; he and Doug have to compare notes at least once a week on sports lineups.)
The truth, of course, is that the Emhoffs are getting used to a new normal—Zooms, texts, voicemails, and all—in front of a massive audience. A self-proclaimed group of huggers, all three of them, plus Harris, as well as her sister, her niece, and a slew of spouses, partners, and relatives—have worked to minimize the feeling of distance that campaigning and the pandemic have imposed. To some extent, it’s made them closer and more connected than ever. Other times—well, Ella has to be reminded to give her dad a ring.
Still, the warmth and love and teasing between them is evident, even across several time zones. Here, the three Emhoffs talk strong women, the home stretch of the campaign, and Doug’s reputation as America’s top-ranked husband.
The value of living with strong women
Ella Emhoff: So father, Douglas.
Doug Emhoff: Yes, daughter?
Ella: Throughout your whole entire life—and my whole entire life—you’ve had powerful, strong-minded women around you. Spanning from your mom to my mom to my stepmom. How do you think that’s shaped the man you are today?
Doug: I love being surrounded by strong women. I’m glad to have had a strong mother. She’s got what we call street smarts, but she’s also so intelligent. It’s just all I knew. When I got older, it made sense that I would want to continue to be around smart, powerful women. But also women who are funny and compassionate and actually want to do good in the world. People talk about it like it’s something unique or a big deal, but I think, Well everyone should want to know strong women and support them.
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we had strong women in office and in business and in leadership roles? And now we’ve got Maya and Meena [Kamala’s sister and niece]—the Harris women!
Ella: It’s insane how between the two families, there are that many powerful role models we have to look up to.
Doug: Kamala’s mom—whom we all never met, unfortunately—apparently was the same way. Kamala has remarked to me how similar she was to my mom, your grandma. So Kamala had that same upbringing. I will say this, and I know Cole will attest to it: In this family, you have got to bring your A-game all the time. You cannot just roll into a casual conversation, whether it’s with Meena, Maya, Kamala, Kerstin [Cole and Ella’s mother], Grandma Barb, my sister, Jamie. You have got to have it together. Otherwise you’re going to get trampled.
Cole: I’ve been grilled so many times. Not many people in this family are passive in any way, and I think that’s kind of what drives everyone. Everyone just cares and wants to get things done, and actually work. I’d be hard pressed to think of many moments when Mom or Kamala or Grandma is just, like, sitting on the couch, and that’s all they want to do all day.
Ella: Never. Literally never.
Doug: Speaking of the Harris women, what were your first impressions when you met Kamala?
Cole: First I was a little blindsided, to be honest. Doug was like, “I met this woman. She’s cool. I’m excited about her.” And Doug hadn’t talked about his dating life for a long time. He said, “I think you just have to know, though, that she is the attorney general of California.” I was like, “Okay, cool, whatever.”
Doug: Well, Cole, you were a senior in high school. A significant time to be meeting her, right?
Cole: Right, so I was kind of in my own world, just about to graduate, go to college. And then I met her and we had this amazing dinner. And I realized like, Oh my God, Doug has met someone who is completely unique and totally special.
I think for all of us, it was love at first sight. We had an incredible evening at one of my favorite restaurants—The Reel Inn. We had a long drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, sharing music. I got to know her first on a much more personal level—her music tastes, her cooking, how she interacts with Doug, which was hilarious. She would just be ribbing him. It was perfect.
Over time, I got a sense of who she was and her career up to that point. It gave me a new understanding of what she’s been able to accomplish, and I was so impressed.
Ella: I think when we met her, I was about to go into high school, so I was in an equally intense time, but for different, more angsty reasons. It felt serious when he was just talking about her, because I could hear it in his voice. When we did meet, it all felt so natural that it wasn’t even a big deal. It felt like we had known each other forever. And I think what was important was getting to know her as a person first—a person before a politician.
Doug: We talked a lot about it over those first years, because she was so much about integrating into the family as a person. But she would sometimes say, “Do they really know what I do?” I would say, “Yes, but they don’t care. They care about you.”
Ella: Sometimes I feel like I’m just getting to know her as a politician because I’ve spent so much time getting to know her as just my stepmom.
Cole: We would just have these real conversations at dinner, almost Socratic, where we would all bounce off each other. It’s so interesting when I hear her speak publicly or read about her policy position. I’m like, Okay, I’ve seen that reflected at the dinner table, so I know it’s true to her.
Ella: Those dinner table conversations were some of the most interesting conversations I had in high school.
Doug: But what happened when you brought your friends over? Did they get the Kamala Harris–level examination?
Cole: I had to give the biggest warning ever when I wanted to have friends over for dinner.
Ella: It became infamous! She would grill our friends on their life goals, their 10-year plan. If you don’t know, you’re out.
Cole: She’s not kidding. I remember the first time I brought my girlfriend over, Kamala’s like, “Can you make a Caesar dressing?” She was like, “Uh.”
Ella: Wasn’t she like, “Can you make mayonnaise?”
Cole: Yes. “Can you make homemade mayonnaise?” I tried to make it recently, and it’s way harder than it seems.
The perks of fatherhood
Cole: What do you enjoy most about being a father?
Doug: This—talking to you. I loved being a dad from day one. Just going through this experience that we’ve had and being stronger for it. Being in this position and putting all of ourselves out here like this, and having you two still smiling and laughing. Maybe our lives have changed a little bit, but we haven’t changed. It’s still the same conversations, the same bond, the same love, the same support that we’ve always had. I’m just so proud. And it makes me happy.
And that’s why when you don’t text me I get so sad, Ella.
Ella: I can’t believe you’re outing me right now! [Laughs].
Doug: I’ll tell you one thing though, when I was your age, my mom used to tell me, “You know, I still think of you as my kid. And all I do is think about you.” And I would think, Dude, why? And now that I’m her age, and you’re my age then, that’s what I do. I said to my mom, “You were right about that.”
Cole: Do you think that there’s anything you do differently or ways you feel that are different—in terms of having a son and a daughter?
Doug: I think you’re different kids. You required different things, so I’ve tried to be responsive to what you both needed.
Cole: Like how you tried to make me play tee ball instead of Ella. And now Ella is a better athlete than I am.
Doug: What is the key to sports?
Ella: Soft hands! Any sport, whether it’s basketball, it’s swimming, it’s volleyball.
Cole: I have memories of Doug trying to teach me to drive clutch, and he’s like, “Soft hands.” I was like, “What do you mean!”
Doug: Yeah, I was not a good driving teacher, either. When it came time for Ella to drive—
Cole: I was like, “Get in the car with me.”
Getting the call from the Biden campaign
Ella: It was such a mix of emotions. Because it’s super exciting and it’s amazing that a woman of color is on the ticket. It’s groundbreaking. But I think it was also that intense wave of realization and anxiety that, “Wow, I’m not looking at this from the outside. I’m looking at it from the inside. This is all happening to me too.” I felt extreme love and excitement, but also a little bit of shock.
Cole: I got to join Doug and Kamala for the vice presidential debate. Then I saw the reporters, the cars, and like Ella said, it’s a lot. It hit me again even harder. Doug took me into the debate prep room with Kamala, and just to see this massive room—it was awesome. But it shook me a little bit.
Ella: I think it’s even harder that this is all happening during Covid because not being together during all of this is hard. We can Zoom, and we do have a Zoom every weekend, and we talk a lot. But it’s not the same.
Doug: To get to the VP debate, to be there with us, Cole got in a car and drove from L.A. to Salt Lake City through the day—10, 12 hours. He showed up in his sandals and shorts.
Doug: I should have warned him. When I first got on to the campaign, it was the same for me. I’d been working from home for five or six months; Kamala was working from home. We knew we were part of the process. But we didn’t know up until when we got called that it was going to be her. After we get the call, an hour later the senior leadership of the campaign barges into the apartment with binders and materials. And the campaign staff is like, “We leave for Wilmington tomorrow for the announcement.” I was like, “Wait, I haven’t worn long pants in five months.”
Campaigning during a pandemic
Doug: I feel so fortunate that we are healthy and that we at least are connected. So when people ask me how I’m dealing with it, I don’t talk about it. Because I feel like people are suffering so much, and the stories we hear are devastating. We have met folks whose family members have died. Then there’s the economic devastation, or people losing their health care.
We have a Sunday zoom, and we talk during the week. Not as much as I’d like, but we talk. But when you’re on the road like this and you see what’s going on in other people’s families, it just gives you so much time to reflect. It’s really opened my eyes, frankly. And it’s made me a better surrogate because I listen and I take it back to Kamala and Joe. And then it informs what the campaign is talking about.
On earning a reputation as the nation’s most supportive husband
Doug: It’s a little surreal at times because it’s not like I’ve changed. I’m the same. I will say this, though: I have even more empathy for Kamala and more respect for her after being on this campaign. Whether it’s a full day of Zooms or a full day out on the trail, you really leave a piece of yourself out there. It’s intense. Even when I come back and I’m exhausted, and she’s like, See?
Ella: You’re living it.
Doug: Now I understand how much she puts into it—how much heart and soul goes into it to get to where she’s gotten and to do it on the level she does it. It’s remarkable. On the public side, it’s just how I am, and because of social media, people get to see it. And for the record, Kamala is so supportive of me behind the scenes. Now she’s starting to be a little more public with it. She’s tweeting about it more. Like for our anniversary and my birthday, I’m like, “Wow, okay!” But behind the scenes she is so loving and supportive of me, and the kids will attest to that.
Cole: People don’t see how dorky and loving they are together. It’s very embarrassing.
Ella: It’s a lot. You all don’t even know. And I’m so single.
Cole: But it’s great. It’s good to see—two people so in love and supportive. I think Doug said it right. If you’re in a relationship like that, you’re a team. You have to work together to achieve both your goals. Between them, it’s a two-way street.
Her historic nomination
Doug: Ella, what it was like to see Kamala up on the DNC stage—in terms of putting herself out there and achieving this historical thing?
Ella: Separating her familial relationship to me, I think it’s super long overdue. It’s so empowering to see someone who’s so sure of herself and is not going to back down. What’s so important about her is that she’s super comfortable with her assertiveness. She doesn’t see that as a weakness, and she’s not scared. To see someone who is running like that with Joe for the highest of offices—I hope it will open up the floodgates for a lot more women and especially women of color to just run and then hopefully make it to the top. I think that we’ve needed someone like her to come along.
Cole: To add to that too, I do think that with Kamala, she is herself on stage. She’s sincere and I think, that’s what I hope also, people will learn about her. It’s the same with Joe, and I think that’s what garners attention and respect and trust from voters.
The home stretch
Doug: I know from my perspective, it’s just been an amazing experience. I’m humbled, I’m honored to have put it all on hold—my career, family life, everything—to help Kamala on this campaign and really help Joe. Because as I’ve been saying on the trail now, I love Kamala Harris, but I’ve gotten to know Joe and Jill very well on this campaign. And I love them too. They’re just incredible. They actually called Ella and Cole when we got onto the trail.
Ella: They did.
Doug: They’re both just fundamentally decent human beings who lead with heart and compassion. So for me it’s just continuing to get out of my comfort zone and put myself out there as much as I can all over the place for these next few days to help them win.
Cole: The thing that’s motivating me is making sure that people don’t get complacent right now. We’re so close to the end, but we still need to vote. The majority of Americans still need to vote. Ignore polls, ignore the headlines—just remember how important it is to get Donald Trump out of the White House and to get Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in.
Final, burning questions?
Cole: How did you get so handsome, Doug?
Ella: Yeah, tell us, Dougie!
Doug: Because I do this all the time. [Makes epic, Blue Steel face.]
Ella: That’s the Doug face.
Doug: Really, I just want to say I am so proud of both of you. I love you. I miss you. And no matter what, we’re a family through thick and thin. We’re always going to be together, and we can do anything. And I’ll see you on the family Zoom.
Ella: See you in an hour!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour