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FILE – Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, hold up a t-shirt that says “Madam Vice President” while visiting small businesses at a holiday market on Small Business Saturday in Washington, on Nov. 28, 2020. What’s it like to have Kamala Harris as ‘Momala’? Her stepkids Cole and Ella Emhoff weigh in.
Before November, most people did not know Cole and Ella Emhoff’s names. Cole Emhoff, 26, worked at a production company in Los Angeles and lived with his girlfriend. Ella Emhoff, 21, was a New York art student living in the Bushwick neighborhood and uploaded photos of her knitting designs on Instagram.
However, on the night that Joe Biden and his running mate for the vice presidency, Kamala Harris – his stepmother – gave their acceptance speeches, with their families gathered on stage, as they watched the fireworks, Cole Emhoff began to receive amazing text messages from friends and colleagues. “They were like, ‘Wait, how did you not tell me this?’” She said, speaking on Zoom to her sister from her mother’s home in Los Angeles. He was wearing a gray T-shirt with a picture of Harris’s face. He swore it was the only cleaner he had in the house.
This interview has been edited and summarized.
P: The last few months must have been pretty surreal for you two. How has it been?
Cole Emhoff: It’s weird putting CNN on and seeing my father. I think, “Wait, you don’t belong there! But I suppose it must be there ”. It’s completely unprecedented for us because we haven’t really been involved in politics our entire lives. We are still getting used to the matter.
Ella Emhoff: When we went to see them on Election Day, I realized that it is very different now. There are many more people. I think the idea of sharing our parents with the world is a bit crazy. Trying to understand it is great, because you can share all the great things, but it’s also unnerving.
P: Was your family in politics when you were little?
She: Cole and I grew up knowing politics. When Proposition 8 Happened [en California], we were very involved in that. But I feel like it was different from what we are experiencing now.
Now we are Really being participants in everything. We are learning everything that happens behind the scenes. We are learning politics. But we never said, “We’re going to be politicians now!”
P: What’s it like to be in a room with your extended family?
She: It’s like you have the most self-confident people with a strong personality, many of them women, and you bring them all together. So, they all try to speak above the others. So that’s a lot of really enthusiastic screaming.
P: So it is a family of strong personalities and also lawyers. What was it like growing up with them?
She: It was nice to have so many different and really strong opinions. We always joke that every time we bring our friends for the first time, they are going to question them. If you don’t have your 10-year plan completely ready and summarized in a spreadsheet for them, you are not going to survive that meal.
Cole: They don’t do well with small talk. It’s like they’re saying, “We’re going to talk about important things right here over dinner.”
P: What kinds of things did they ask your father and your stepmother?
Cole: I was a senior in high school when they joined and I remember seeing a tweet that someone posted. It was a picture of Kamala in the Kavanaugh hearing and someone tweeted: “I would hate to have to look at that face and explain why I was late home.” And I thought, “I’ve literally had to do that.”
She: They are definitely strong.
Cole: I went to a school in Colorado, and I don’t want to say it was a hippie school, but let’s just say it was about being outdoors and relaxed. And one of my friends wanted to backpacking when she graduated, and Kamala was like, “OK, so what are you going to do with that later? And after that? And after that?”. And my friend still cites that conversation as a kind of rethinking of what she felt would be her path, in terms of having goals that were not in her immediate future. But I think they just want us and the people to know what we are doing.
She: Yes, they want you to have a plan.
P: What is the parenting dynamic like between your mother, Kerstin Emhoff, and Doug and Kamala?
She: I would say that while growing up, my mother was “the strict one.” I got in trouble all the time, and Doug would always say, “Oh, do you need a hug?” He would say to me, “Okay.” And then my mom would say, “Go to your room. You are punished”.
P: How does it feel to see your father in this role?
Cole: What I like the most is that if you look at his first Instagram posts, you can see the progression from the classic “dad” photos with ten followers — taking selfies right under his face — to having hundreds of thousands of followers and being legitimately good at it.
She: Yes, it is rare for us to see the change from when he was a normal “Doug” …
Cole: I just want to quickly add that we call my dad “Doug” at home and we always have. I consider it a term of endearment. “Doug” and “papa” are both one syllable; they sound similar so it almost feels like a nickname. And now I can’t tell you any other way.
She: People always stop me. They say to me: “What? Who is Doug? I tell them: “My dad.”
P: So wait, your mom is “mom” and Doug is “Doug”?
She: Yes, I write all emails like this: “To Mom and Doug.”
P: What was it like when your parents separated?
Cole: There was like a period, I don’t know how many years, in which we called ourselves “Palazzo Crew”. Because when Doug left home, he moved into an apartment complex called the Palazzo.
She: Definitely, for the three of us, it was very enriching. And I think we have that feeling that we managed to go through the different apartments and discover the dynamics of just being ourselves.
Q: Your father has never stopped working, has he? How do you think this situation will be for him?
She: I hope he takes up another hobby. I hope you start knitting, like me. I think it will be a good time to slow down and, I don’t know, to appreciate life. And that you take advantage of many of the things that you could not do because you were working too hard or had time constraints. I hope this opens up some of those creative outlets, but obviously that’s just me, the creative daughter.
P: Did you think your family was different, or particularly evolved, when you were little?
She: I thought we were a family with divorced parents who get along. It didn’t seem crazy to me. It was something that I hoped was the norm. I thought we had a good time compared to a lot of people I’d seen with divorced parents. So I think I felt very lucky.
Cole: Divorce was very common in our world in Los Angeles. It was tough at first, but I always think I’m very glad they got divorced because I think that really brought us together.
She: It’s a great dynamic that we all have. And I think it’s a good model to show that you can pull it off and that it’s not weird. It is not unusual to have a friendship or a good relationship with your ex. It is actually very healthy.
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