On Tuesday, The Heritage Foundation announced that its next president would be Kay Coles James, who previously served on President Donald Trump’s transition team and who was director of the Office of Personnel Management in the George W. Bush administration. Genevieve Wood interviewed James Tuesday about her background, why she cares about policy, and what she intends to do as president of The Heritage Foundation. Below is a lightly-edited version of their conversation.
Genevieve Wood: We have had an exciting morning here at The Heritage Foundation because we just announced who is going to be the next president of The Heritage Foundation beginning Jan. 1, and we want you to meet her right now. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Kay Coles James. Kay, thank you and congratulations.
Kay Coles James: Thank you, dear friend.
Wood: This is awesome. To say that this was an enthusiastic reception this morning would be selling it short. You got a lot of standing ovations. The emails are all coming in—
James: I must confess that I didn’t want my first impression to the staff to be standing there with tears running down my face, but the reception was so warm and so overwhelming that I think a dose of real emotion was probably appropriate.
Wood: I think it was, too. So you are starting Jan. 1?
James: Jan. 1.
Wood: You’re not new to Heritage. You’ve been on our board since 2005. … You’re not new to politics and public policy. You’ve worked local level, state level, federal level.
James: My time with Heritage actually goes back more than 25 years, serving on the board, of course, but I have had the opportunity to speak at President’s Clubs and Resource Banks and to be involved as a fellow here at The Heritage Foundation when I did the Citizenship Project several years ago. My love and affinity for this organization runs deep and it runs long.
Wood: I want people out there who don’t know you, and I know many of you do, but what they may not know about your background is you worked for Gov. George Allen in Virginia, [as] assistant secretary of Health and Human Resources—
James: Let’s start at the beginning. I think what people need to know about me is that I came from a welfare mom. I came from a broken home, a dad who was absent. And the reason that’s important is because when I began to talk about welfare reform I had to grow out of failing schools and learn.
So for me, policy isn’t just about the white papers that we produce, but it’s what’s behind those papers. The lives of people that can be changed with the excellent policy that we produce here. And in no small measure, I really feel like everything in my life has been gearing up for this moment.
Yes, I did have the opportunity to work on welfare reform with Gov. Allen in Virginia and we’re going to be tackling that nationally very soon. I have the privilege to serve on a state Board of Education so I have been diving deep into education policy.
Yes, I was the secretary of Health in Virginia and I understand entirely what needs to happen to fix our failing health care system in our country today. The policy side runs deep, but I want people to know that the passion, the passion for changing peoples’ lives, runs deep as well.
Wood: You have had this storied career. You worked for Ronald Reagan. You worked for President George W. Bush. I mean, you go on and on with the list here. You were at Regent University, dean there. After such a career, why now Heritage?
James: Because it’s so interesting. You may know that for a while I actually headed the search committee [for a new president of The Heritage Foundation]. Somebody said, “Oh, so you did a full Dick Cheney.”
So I was helping to develop the profile of what the next president of Heritage needed to be and to do and working with the search committee on those issues. And it was so interesting that one of our board members at one point said, “What about Kay?” And as soon as I became a serious candidate, I stepped down from the search committee and [former Attorney General and Heritage Foundation Ronald Reagan fellow emeritus] Ed Meese took it over.
The reality is that when I look back over my life, everything has been preparation for this. Our donors and our members and the people that we serve know how important this organization is and it isn’t just important for the conservative movement, it’s important for this country. We’re at a critical place in our nation right now and I think that, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite Bible verses, I feel like my life has been leading up to this for such a time as this.
Wood: This morning you shared a really personal story with our team here. I know our audience would love to hear about when you really realized you were a fighter because Kay, you’re the first woman president of Heritage, but [not only of Heritage but] of many a conservative or a think tank period across the board. You’re also a black woman.
James: You know what I’m so excited about? The fact that I’m a woman and African-American? I don’t think anybody on the board cared. It is absolutely not in their DNA and I think we did it the right way. I think that they were looking for the best and the most qualified person and you know, it’s like it was an afterthought. Oh my gosh—
Wood: On the flip side.
James: Yeah, so isn’t that something.
Wood: It is, but it’s part of who you are. And it’s part of your story that you told us this morning—
James: Well, you know, I shared this morning that at 12 years old when I was integrating the schools in the south in Richmond, Virginia, it was a very difficult time for those who went through that period in our country’s history. It was a frightening time. Far more than anything I’ve seen today with some of the folks who complain about where our country is today.
And I’m glad I had that experience. The experience of being kicked when I walked down the hall. The experience of being called names. The experience of being stuck with pins, and that’s how they used to try to scare us. You never knew where it was going to come from when you were walking down the hall, but it turned me into a fighter. I was determined to stay. I was resolved.
I think God used that in shaping me in who I am today. I don’t mind fighting for the things that I believe in. I believe in this great country. I believe in The Heritage Foundation. I believe in our mission, vision, and values, and I’m ready to fight for it.
Wood: When did you decide “I’m a conservative”?
James: I didn’t actually know I was a conservative until a reporter told me. Years ago, and this is absolutely true, I was being interviewed and he said something like, “So, how is it being a black conservative?” And I went, “I’m a conservative?”
I knew what I believed, and incidentally my definition of a black conservative, actually I believe it’s a definition for any good conservative, is someone that has the audacity to believe what their grandmother taught them.
There’s nothing weird, deep, or complicated about it. The values that we have are good, solid, traditional, American values. That’s who we are at our core. And one day I realized that somehow that group of values that were mine to the core had a label, and that label was conservative. And I said, “By golly, I’m a conservative.”
Wood: Let me ask you, you talked also about just reaching everybody with this message—because conservatism is good for everybody.
James: Oh, absolutely.
Wood: The values that we fight for.
James: The values that we have and that we fight for. Some of the best research data and analysis emanates out of this building that builds the case for, and makes the argument for, the policies that we believe in. I want to make sure that that message, that it goes to every corner of this country.
I want Bernie Sanders voters to understand why we are actually more compassionate, why we actually have real solutions that will affect poverty and end failure factories—that we somehow call schools—that don’t educate. I really want them to understand … Let’s just go for what’s true, and right and positive and let’s look at what the data and the research says.
Are we bold enough to do that? Because if we are, we will find common ground and we can change this country for the better.
Wood: You have any particular goals coming in? I mean, I know you said, “Look, we’re not going to change who Heritage is.” But what are your personal leadership goals or just hope for the organization and for America?
James: Oh, you know I am here, not just for the organization, but for this country because I believe that Heritage is the premiere organization that’s charting the course for this nation. To have the opportunity to do that is overwhelming. But my goal initially is to listen. In this building are some of the most superior individuals on the planet who know the policies, who are the scholars, and I want to listen.
Beyond listening, I want to make sure that what we know and what we learn can explode out of this building and go all across America. We know that we have as our major constituency the policymakers here on Capitol Hill and we want to change their minds.
The people in the administration, we want to provide them good data and research analysis. But I want people even outside of America … Do you understand that people who are fighting for freedom and liberty in foreign countries look to Heritage for research and data and information? So, yes, my love and my passion is the country, but my love and passion goes to wherever people are fighting for freedom and liberty and opportunity.
Wood: Now a lot of folks out there are going to say, “What is your relationship with the current administration and current other leaders?” I know that you spoke with Speaker [Paul] Ryan already this morning on the phone. What is your relationship with those different groups?
James: It’s interesting having been in this town for as long as I have, many of them I have known for many, many years. I knew Speaker Ryan when he was an intern and at Empower America. I have a great relationship with [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and many great relationships within the administration. I had the privilege of serving on the Trump transition and preparing them for leadership. So, I think that I’m ready to put all those wonderful and great solid relationships to work.
Wood: Final question for you. What have I not asked you that you would want to share with those out there that are members of Heritage, who follow The Daily Signal, who are looking forward to getting to know you?
James: I’d want to share with them that this is an exciting time. That they can look forward to the Heritage that they’ve known and loved for a very long time. I said to [Heritage Foundation President] Ed Feulner and to [Heritage Foundation senior adviser] Phil Truluck this morning that I understand this precious thing that they have created. And my job is to care for it, nurture it, and grow it.
Wood: And we have every reason to believe you’re going to do simply that. Kay James, thank you so much. Congratulations. Everybody in the building is excited.