Kay Coles James (1949- )

James smiling
Cropped photo of Kay Coles James, February 27, 2020
Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy under public domain

Kay Coles James is a conservative political figure who has served in various government and executive roles. She was most notably the first African American president of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank.

James was born June 1, 1949, and raised in Richmond, Virginia. She graduated from Hampton University, an HBCU formerly known as Hampton Institute.

She is married to Charles E. James, Sr., who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs from 2001 to 2009 in the George W. Bush Administration. The couple has three children. James describes her career trajectory “from stay-at-home mom of three to being propelled by pro-life issues to enter public arena.” While her public role is broad, she has stated that “Pro-life is the greatest civil rights issue of our day.”

James speaking with a banner behind that reads "Time for Action"
Kay Coles James speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26, 2018 – Courtesy Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

James was recruited into politics in by future President George W. Bush. In 1989, she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and reappointed by President George H. W. Bush as a member of the National Commission on Children. She served under President George H. W. 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.

James has served as a board member of PNC Financial Services Group, the National Board of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the Magellan Health Services Board, and Amerigroup Corporation.

From December 2017 until March 2021, James served as president of the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative Washington, D.C.-based public policy research institute. She served as a board member for the previous 12 years, from 2005 to 2017.

James is the founder and current board chair of the Gloucester Institute, an organization that trains and nurtures college-aged leaders in the Black community. The organization draws inspiration from the work of Dr. Robert Russa Moton, the successor to Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute.

She has held prominent roles with conservative organizations, including serving as a board member of Focus on the Family, Senior Vice President of the Family Research Council, and Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer for One-to-One Partnership, a national umbrella organization for mentoring programs.

James speaking at podium with two people in the background listening
Kay Coles James acting as Office of Personnel Management Director speaking at Department of Interior South Building ceremony, March 31, 2003 – Courtesy National Archives Catalog (5612829)

Other board and commission roles include the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, the Virginia Empowerment Commission, the National Commission on Children, the Medicaid Commission, the Carter–Baker Commission on Election Reform, the NASA Advisory Council, the Fairfax County School Board, the Virginia State Board of Education, and the Young Life Board of Directors.  She has also served on the National Advisory Board of the Salvation Army and as a member of the Virginia Commonwealth University Board of Visitors. She was the Convention Secretary for the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego.

In 2022 James was appointed Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia by newly elected Governor Glenn Younkin.

James has authored four books: Never Forget (1993), Kay James (1995), Transforming America: From the Inside Out (1995), and What I Wish I’d Known Before I Got Married (2001).