James is Heritage’s former president and a leader in government, academia, and the conservative movement.
Kay Coles James served as the president of The Heritage Foundation, America’s premier conservative think tank, from 2018-2021. She has also served as a trustee of the board from 2005-2022. Throughout her tenure at Heritage, she was dedicated to helping formulate and promote solutions to the many issues Americans face—from fighting poverty to improving our schools and our health care system to reducing the size and scope of government. These public policy solutions are based on the principles of individual freedom, limited government, free enterprise, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
With an unwavering commitment to Heritage’s members, its board and staff, and to the American people, Mrs. James pushed the organization to new heights. Under her leadership, for three years in a row, Heritage was named the No. 1 think tank in the world for its impact on public policy by the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, the world’s leading authority on the role policy institutes play in governments and civil societies around the globe.
One of her great passions was guiding Heritage in its outreach and sharing of its message with young people, minorities, and women who don’t necessarily consider themselves conservative but who practice conservative principles in their own lives.
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, and raised in her early years in Richmond’s housing projects to a single mother in the segregated South, Mrs. James was one of the first children to take part in a historic experiment to desegregate Virginia’s all-white schools. She would go on to achieve the American dream, graduating from the historically black Hampton University; serving four U.S. presidents; dining with princes, prime ministers, and other world leaders; and helping America chart a path for recovery from the devastation of COVID-19 as the chairman of the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission.
Before becoming president of Heritage, Mrs. James was a lifelong grassroots activist who unapologetically fought for conservative, American values at the local, state, and national level.
A devout Christian, her experience growing up in poverty with a mother on welfare and an alcoholic father played a profound role in fundamentally shaping her views on the importance of family and religion, the value of education, the need for welfare reform, and the repeated failure of well-intentioned government programs, especially in America’s urban communities.
As she has often said, “I didn’t become a conservative despite my roots; I became a conservative because of them.”
Much of her adult life has been spent fighting for policies that promote family and education instead of more government as remedies to poverty. She mentors young people and works to instill in them the value of education as a means to achieving success. She crafted education policy during her time on the Virginia State Board of Education and the Fairfax County School Board. And she served as dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, where she led the accreditation initiative for the school of government.
Mrs. James also served on the Virginia Commonwealth University board of visitors, where she and her fellow board members led the effort to fulfill the university president’s goal of making VCU a leading research institution in Virginia.
She continues to promote school choice so that parents can send their children to the schools that best meet their needs, and she advocates that decisions about education are best made by the people closest to the students—local school boards and the states, but rarely the federal government.
An ardent pro-lifer, she was drawn to the life issue out of a desire to protect society’s most vulnerable. She worked for several pro-life organizations and served as the chief spokesperson for the National Right to Life Committee in the 1980s. She even opened her own crisis pregnancy center and counseled young women against abortion.
Mrs. James was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and then reappointed by President George H.W. Bush to the National Commission on Children, an advisory body on children’s issues. She also served under President Bush as associate director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and as assistant secretary for public affairs at the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Following her time in the George H.W. Bush administration, Virginia Gov. George Allen appointed her as Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources. As secretary, she designed and implemented Virginia’s landmark welfare reform initiative that set time limits and imposed work requirements for welfare recipients. She also used her position to influence housing policies regarding young, elderly, and low-income Virginians.
In 2001, Mrs. James was appointed director of the U. S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) by President George W. Bush and led a department of 3,600 employees. As director, she was the federal government’s chief personnel officer, responsible for all personnel practices and programs, and served as President Bush’s principal advisor in matters of personnel administration for the 1.8 million members of the federal civil service.
In her position as director of OPM, in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, she designed and oversaw the process by which nearly 170,000 employees from 22 different agencies merged into the newly created Department of Homeland Security.
In 2016, a fourth U.S. president turned to her for assistance. President-elect Donald Trump asked her to serve as a senior advisor on his presidential transition team. Once in office, President Trump appointed her as a commissioner on the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, which she chaired. She also advised the president frequently on matters ranging from immigration reform to support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
During her career, she also served as a senior fellow and director of The Citizenship Project at The Heritage Foundation, as the senior vice president of the Family Research Council, as the director of public affairs at the National Right to Life Committee, and as the executive vice president and chief operating officer for the One to One Partnership, a national umbrella organization for mentoring programs. She was also the director of community education and development for Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia.
In 2001, Mrs. James founded The Gloucester Institute and served as its president and board chairman. The organization trains and nurtures college-age men and women in the African American community and focuses on shaping a new generation of conservative leaders. Through Mrs. James’ leadership, The Gloucester Institute has been committed to providing an intellectually safe environment where ideas can be discussed and transformed into practical solutions for our country.
She has served on several other boards and commissions, including the Virginia Empowerment Commission, the Medicaid Commission, the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, the NASA Advisory Council, the Focus on the Family board of directors, Young Life’s board of directors, and the national advisory board of the Salvation Army.
She served on several corporate boards, including PNC Financial Services Group, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Phycor, Magellan Health Services, and Amerigroup Corporation. She was a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors and has done continuing board education at the Harvard School of Business.
Mrs. James has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including a doctor of laws from Pepperdine University, the University of Virginia’s Publius Award for Public Service, and the Spirit of Democracy Award for Public Policy Leadership from the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
As a commentator, lecturer, and policy leader, she appears on numerous national news and talk programs, and her opinion pieces appear in newspapers across the country.
She is the author of three books about personal success and growth: her award-winning autobiography, Never Forget (1994); Transforming America from the Inside Out (1995); and What I Wish I’d Known Before I Got Married (2001).
She is the wife of Charles James, Sr., and the proud mother of three grown children and five grandchildren.