“Andrew says that the first time he told me, I said something like, ‘Please pass the salt,’ ” she says. “I just thought it was probably a phase.”
Flash-forward to December, when he was the only candidate of color left on the Democratic debate stage, and Evelyn was “sitting way up high in the bleachers with Teri Hatcher,” the actress from “Desperate Housewives,” who is a member of the Yang Gang, as his most fervent supporters call themselves. A day earlier, musician, actor, producer and director Donald Glover announced he was joining the campaign as an official “creative consultant.”
Evelyn is a homemaker raising the couple’s two young boys, 7 and 4, the elder of whom is on the autism spectrum. Recently, she’s started joining her husband on the campaign trail, and now she’s facing cameras everywhere. Right after the debate she did her first solo fundraiser in Los Angeles, “and it was weird, because most of the staff left with Andrew,” she says, laughing. “It’s like being left alone on a movie set” after the crew has gone.
Behind each of the two dozen announcements from Democratic presidential hopefuls has been a significant other who’s had to jump onto the roller coaster, all smiles, too. Some, such as Jill Biden and Jane Sanders, have done this before, but no one could have prepared for this historically large and diverse field, with so many potential first gentlemen campaigning, or a primary season that’s coinciding with the third presidential impeachment in the nation’s history. Or a sitting president who sends more than 100 tweets in a 24-hour period and then takes the country to the brink of war with Iran just as the race heats up.
If you’re a modern presidential candidate’s significant other, you’ve got the dual jobs of being an uncomplaining source of support for your partner, making sure he or she is getting fed and sleeping and has someone to vent to, plus often being the mouthpiece for your partner and attending events he or she can’t get to. Not to mention doing your actual job, which could be being a teacher or a professor (Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden; Elizabeth Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann; Amy Klobuchar’s husband, John Bessler) or raising small kids (Yang), or doing both (Erica Castro, whose husband, Julián Castro, recently dropped out of the race) — while trying not to say anything that will derail your candidate’s hopes and dreams.
“I liken it to being shot out of a cannon, even for someone like myself who’s been through several elections,” says Doug Emhoff, husband to Sen. Kamala D. Harris, who kept up his entertainment law practice during Harris’s run, which ended on Dec. 3.
Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, says nothing could prepare him for the highs and the lows: “Obviously, life changes when you get, like, nasty letters to your house telling you you’d be better off dead.” (They’ve instituted a policy of forwarding their mail to the campaign for filtering first.) But then a lot of other days, he’s hearing from LGBTQ kids who are telling him they were able to come out to their families because of Buttigieg’s run.
While the candidates are competitors, the spouses are often spending long hours waiting in the wings together. Emhoff calls it “the surrogate circuit.” It’s a little like the long Oscars season, or maybe even high school, in that unlikely friendships form from frequency of exposure and the shared experience of being a plus one — although the trappings are usually community centers in Iowa, and it’s the leadership of the free world, rather than a golden statue, that’s at stake.
“I was wondering how much of this would be about people walking around, acting like they were auditioning for the role of being the first whatever, man, woman,” says Rosario Dawson, partner to Sen. Cory Booker, and an actress who knows her way around awards functions. “But it actually feels much more natural and off the cuff and more sincere and regular.”
According to Bernie Sanders’s wife Jane, the vibe is far more collegial than in 2016. But, calling other spouses “friends” is a bit of a stretch, she says. “It’s more of good acquaintances,” and there’s “often a big hug,” she says.
What they all have in common is being a partner to someone who believes he or she has a duty to defeat President Trump. “I think we would be united in saying that we all see the weight of what’s happening in this country, and it’s on the shoulders of each of the candidates,” Jane Sanders says. The couples have the same goal: “I don’t think for any of them that it’s about personal power. I think it’s personal responsibility.”
Chasten Buttigieg, who’s taken a leave of absence from being a middle school teacher, and Emhoff became friendly early on. “It’s interesting to find yourselves in a very, very small cohort of people who are supporting their spouses as they run for president of the United States,” Buttigieg says. “We connect on a few different levels that even your best friends can’t quite understand.” Almost immediately, he says, he gave Emhoff his cellphone number and said he was free to chat whenever, “you know, just as a fellow human experiencing this.”
When Harris was still in the race, Emhoff says, he, Buttigieg, and other spouses might check in to see who was going to a particular event so they could hang out together in the holding room, or text each other during debates.
As a newbie, Evelyn Yang says, she has leaned on Tom Steyer’s wife, Kat. Their husbands are the two non-politicians left in the race, but Kat knows the ropes better and stepped in when Evelyn seemed a little baffled by the spin room after the Atlanta debate. “You’ve got somebody holding a sign with your name on it and you have to follow the sign, like follow the red balloon,” says Yang. “Or else if you get separated from the group you might never be seen again.”
Jane Sanders and Jill Biden have known each other for years, and have had lunch when doing events for military families, and Dawson has spent time with the Sanders family since she was a Bernie surrogate in 2016.
The Sanderses and Warren and Mann have whiled away time together while stuck in airports. “We talked and talked and talked policy,” Jane says. “We’re all policy wonks.” Bessler says he and Mann geek out about their shared love of legal history whenever they run into each other.
Mainly within the surrogate circuit, says Dawson, “It’s a lot of going, ‘Is he eating? Is he sleeping?’ There’s a lot or respect and care that people have for each other. The last election was very, very contentious, and I think the entire country just wants to be in a different energy.”
Each significant other has to figure out what his or her role will be in the campaign. Melania Trump, for instance, was relatively silent and traveled very little for her husband’s 2016 campaign. As first lady, she’s increasingly visible, and at the Florida rally where Trump kicked off his reelection campaign, she introduced him.
Erica Castro and Evelyn Yang mostly stayed out of the public eye while raising their young children. But Yang has begun to take on the role of speaking to women and explaining how Andrew’s universal basic income proposal will acknowledge unpaid caregivers. Tulsi Gabbard’s husband, Abraham Williams, a cinematographer, seems to feel most comfortable by her side making her campaign videos. Warren’s husband, Mann, a Harvard law professor whom a fellow Senate spouse described as “shy,” has mostly been seen standing nearby at his wife’s massive selfie lines, and bringing their golden retriever, Bailey, to events. Bailey unequivocally has a bigger social media presence than Mann.
Jill Biden, who teaches English at a community college, keeps a travel schedule that is almost as extensive as her husband’s, has her own chief of staff, a communications director and press secretary, and has a platform supporting military families and promoting education.
Bessler, who teaches law at the University of Baltimore and Georgetown University Law Center, gives speeches when Klobuchar can’t, and meets with local leaders to secure their endorsements. That laugh line she uses about how she’s the candidate who’s raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends? “I came up with the coda,” says Bessler, “that it’s not an expanding base.”
Jane Sanders started off in 2016, “just greeting the crowd with Bernie, waving, smiling, letting them know that he has a family.” Now the former college president is a senior adviser to the campaign. She has her own team and doesn’t go to fundraisers, but she likes to go into communities to talk to artists, educators and Native American leaders, and then bring back ideas to shape Bernie’s policies.
“I hear from the other spouses often, ‘The campaign is sending me here. The campaign is sending me there,’” she says. “And I decide where I’m going.”
All of the potential first gentlemen in the race, except for Chasten, have kept their day jobs, a rarity among political spouses, mainly because political spouses are traditionally expected to be “the good wife.” Connie Schultz, who wrote the book “. . . And His Lovely Wife,” based on her campaign experiences with her husband, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), says it’s been frustrating to see all the positive attention the male spouses of 2020 have been getting from the media. “Is the expectation going to be different because men have careers — and my teeth are grinding as I say that — because many of the women have careers as well. And the expectation always is that we’ll drop everything for our husbands,” she says. “I don’t hear that being the mantra for the men.”
Being a presidential candidate’s spouse also means holidays and birthdays and anniversaries spent on the road. And it’s up to the candidates, too, to try to maintain a connection. Chasten says Pete “is good about maintaining his sweetheart status” by leaving little gifts on Chasten’s pillow for him to find when he’s back in South Bend.
Erica Castro says that Julián, who dropped out Jan. 2, never failed to come back home to San Antonio for major events in their young kids’ lives, particularly when their 10-year-old daughter, Carina, got the part of Anna in her school’s “Frozen” musical.
Dawson is juggling work and her father’s cancer treatments. She went straight from her father’s surgery to the Atlanta debate and back to the hospital.
The Sanderses make a point of spending every night together (that they can) if they’re in the same state. After his heart attack in October, she dropped her schedule and he didn’t go anywhere without her for about two months. They celebrate holidays when they can fit them in: They had a small Thanksgiving dinner — “just the two of us, romantic, candlelight” — and then a feast on Dec. 4 because that’s when all the kids were around.
Bessler and Klobuchar, on the other hand, spent their last anniversary apart. “I think I got a tweet for our anniversary,” he says, laughing. But not just any tweet, “her 10,000th tweet, so that’s very exciting. She probably had to slow down the tweeting a little bit to make that happen.”
And as the world slows down, so, too, do the rhythms of campaigns. The night before Thanksgiving, Klobuchar and Bessler (and their daughter, Abigail, who is 24 and lives in Brooklyn) and Harris and Emhoff happened to be staying in the same hotel in Des Moines, and met up at the hotel bar for pizza and drinks. “I just remember a lot of laughs and a lot of fun stories about being on the trail,” Emhoff says. “Amy is pretty funny and she was cracking us up.”
A week later, Harris announced she was suspending her campaign. Emhoff says they both got supportive notes from many of the candidates and spouses.
Coming off the trail is a hard blow, recalls Chirlane McCray, wife of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio — who dropped out in September. She’d traveled the country talking about mental health care and made solo visits to black churches in South Carolina. McCray, who is black, said she was “especially comfortable” doing that outreach, and it felt “bittersweet” when it was over.
“It takes a lot out of you, physically, to campaign, so it was nice that we got to sleep in our own bed and didn’t have to wake up thinking, ‘Where am I? Who am I talking to today?’ ” But it had also been thrilling meet voters and that was hard to give up, too.
Emhoff says he and Harris spent weeks after her withdrawal visiting staff and saying, “Oh, this sucks.” But recently, things have normalized as much as possible. She’s got the president’s impeachment trial coming up in the Senate; he’s focusing on his law practice.
He has enough distance that he can appreciate the “great memories” he’s come away with and so many relationships that feel “real and solid and hopefully will go forward.”
He got a round of texts from his old surrogate circuit a few weeks ago when Maya Rudolph impersonated Harris crashing the Los Angeles debate, drinking a cosmopolitan, a wind machine whipping her hair around, and telling America, “You coulda had a bad b----!” on Saturday Night Live.
“That was actually great, because it had been a few weeks after we got out and just seeing that made us both smile,” says Emhoff. “It was so funny and a total surprise, and it just showed that at the lowest moment we found that people are still engaged with her, and the campaign really mattered.”