Was that a hedge trimmer buzzing during Biden fundraiser? Just another day on Block Island

Working class represented during second gentleman’s speech rallying Democratic donors

By: - August 4, 2023 11:28 pm

Flags adorn the National Hotel as seen from the ferry landing on Block Island Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

Foot traffic in white socks and flip flops, rental bikers weaving slowly through roads, and tourists asking for directions: It was an ordinary summer day on Block Island. Well, except for the quiet addition of Douglas Emhoff — the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, or, per the White House’s official sobriquet, the Second Gentleman.

Once upon a time in Hollywood, Emhoff worked in entertainment law. But he’s since quit that gig to rally Democratic party donors for the Biden Victory Fund, in hopes of helping to secure the sitting president another term in 2024. 

On Friday, Aug. 4, Emhoff traveled to Block Island for some low-key fundraising hosted at the Hygeia House. The vacation rental property is owned by Matt O’Hayer, who’s also the founder and executive chairman of Vital Farms, a major producer of eggs. The national brand prizes humane methods with the stated aim of “Keeping it Bullsh*t-Free.”

Matt O’Hayer, founder of Vital Farms, the leading U.S. brand of pasture-raised eggs by retail dollar sales, was the host of the Biden fundraiser Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, at the Hygeia House on Block Island. (Courtesy of Vital Farms)

Emhoff aimed for similar concision in an afternoon speech, which lasted around 20 minutes. Besides recapping the Biden era’s achievements in labor, clean energy and antiracism — “It’s a CVS-level of receipts what this administration’s done over the years,” Emhoff said — he began by stressing the attendees’ value to the democratic enterprise.

“You’re patriots, you really are. Patriotism takes many forms, and we are patriots,” Emhoff said. “We love our flag, we love our country, and we’re not gonna allow people who are trying to tear it down, each and every day, to pretend and gaslight us into saying that they’re patriots.”

Emhoff then joked that he was going a bit off script, before pivoting with gymnastic finesse to note that reporters were present, and that they too are “integral” to democracy: “We need to have a strong press,” he said.

Not that the press could physically see Emhoff at Friday afternoon’s fundraiser: This writer and two others were advised by an event staffer that the farther back we stood, the better. From this distance, Emhoff was all vocals. What could be seen from this perspective were the guests’ summer fashions, a man’s bald spot cooking in the sun, and a yummy looking plate of maki rolls flecked with sesame seeds.

No photos were allowed at the fundraiser on Block Island for President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. But here is a flag as seen from the ferry. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

Even without glimpsing Emhoff, there were sights to see. On the front lawn, guests arrived through two neat rows of terra cotta potted flowers. A table with a bucket of bubbly greeted them also. At one point, a champagne flute eloped with the wind, but it was a brief honeymoon before the drink thumped into the table. A staffer moved jackrabbit-quick to undo the mess.  

The Hygeia House is no Motel 6 so the luxe atmosphere wasn’t unusual. The property’s website doesn’t list its current rates, but it does proudly note that Coldplay frontman Chris Martin performed a living room concert there in 2014. 

As the adage goes: “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” and maybe that applies to the fundraiser, too. A DNC spokesperson did not disclose ticket prices for the Block Island event. Other recent mailings from the Biden Victory Fund that are available online have listed tickets starting at $100 for a reception with Harris, while an upcoming reception in Utah with Biden himself starts at $3,300 a ticket.  

Those aren’t exactly everyman prices, but the wider working class was ostensibly represented in Emhoff’s remarks, as well as those of opening act Tom Perez, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee and Biden’s current Senior Advisor in Intergovernmental Affairs. 

Said Perez: “My biggest thing that kept me up at night when I was labor secretary was the plight of the long-term unemployed.”

Under Biden, however, Perez cited what he calls “an FDR moment,” with “record” increases in employment for so-called “prime age workers,” or those between the ages of 25 and 54. For their help in electing such a president, Perez dubbed the audience “serial activists.”

“These folks are tireless,” he said.

Seconds after that quip, the sound of tires pushing through dirt screeched over from a nearby house. The rough music of the world outside continued to float over. What sounded like a hedge trimmer buzzed through a sizable chunk of Emhoff’s speech.

Perez brought energy to match the noise, with an impassioned summary of the current White House: “We have respect again in the world because of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

The audience was likewise energized by the necessary splash of rah-rah that concluded Emhoff’s speech: “So, will you join me?” he asked.

“Yes!” the crowd replied.

“Let’s do this!” Emhoff said.

Then the talking was over — or at least it was for the media. A staffer led press off the porch, onto the lawn, and returned us into the street. Back on the hot sidewalks, Block Island’s tourists were out in full force, likely thankful the day wasn’t as wet as dark morning clouds had suggested.

Others were having more ordinary days on the clock: A deli clerk at Block Island Grocery asked a coworker for help finding a pickup order. Two employees were restocking gum at the Star Department Store. And the source of that hedge clipper sound? It was actually a man sanding the exterior of the town’s police station. He was high on a scaffold, the noise of his work cutting through the air, loud and present.



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Alexander Castro
Alexander Castro

Alexander Castro is a writer, journalist and curator who often covers and critiques arts and culture. In 2022, Castro joined the Visual Arts department at Roger Williams University as an adjunct professor and exhibitions director.