Former Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James says her life “is a model for what can happen in this country with opportunity and seizing the day.” 

As a child, James lived with five siblings in the housing projects of Richmond, Virginia. Her father struggled with alcoholism and was absent from her life. 

Despite the challenges she faced, James went on to become the spokeswoman for National Right to Life. She later served as secretary of the Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources under then-Gov. George Allen and as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management for then-President George W. Bush.

Ultimately, James became president of The Heritage Foundation, one of the world’s largest and most influential think tanks. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)

Before James left her role as Heritage’s president Nov. 30, the “Problematic Women” podcast sat down with her. We asked her to share some wisdom with the rising generation of leaders and to describe what she thinks the future holds for our nation. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I often ask guests on this podcast to share who their greatest role models are, the people that they look up to. And if I were to be asked that question, Mrs. James, you would be top of that list, so this is a real honor today to welcome you back to “Problematic Women.” [James until recently served as president of The Heritage Foundation, and this podcast was recorded prior to her departure.] And it’s such an honor, Mrs. James, to have you here.

Kay C. James:
Well, thank you. And I just get to say that for a few more hours. We’re down to hours now.

Allen: This is really a bittersweet day. We love getting to talk with you and have you on, but this will be your last time joining us as the president of The Heritage Foundation. Both Lauren [Evans] and I have served under your leadership for about four years. And it has been an honor.

Well, I’ll tell you, given the name of this particular podcast, I think your listeners should know that as I step down from the presidency at The Heritage Foundation, my goal in life is to be much more of a problematic women.

Allen: Well, and you’re not slowing down with that, either.

Not at all. I look forward to going back to my roots as an activist. And I have appreciated the opportunity to lead The Heritage Foundation for the past four years. But we’re at such a place in our country right now where it’s time for a little more activism, and I look forward to that.

Allen: Absolutely. As you think back about your time at Heritage, is there maybe something that you’ve learned or a highlight for you? Something that you’re taking with you, a gold nugget?

Well, interestingly enough, probably one of the things that I point back to as something that I am most proud of at Heritage came out of a very stressful situation. As president, I was shocked that a lot of calls that I received were from inside the camp who wanted us to do things that violated our conservative values and principles.

Now that we had individuals in government, in the White House and in the administration that were solidly conservative and solidly with us on many issues, there were those times when I would get the call that says, “I know this is something you wouldn’t typically do, but we want to get this done, and it’s important.”

And out of that came the True North principles. And I said, I wanted to put down on paper those values that were important to us as conservatives. And I wanted to say to our enemies and friends alike, here are the things that we will not violate. I can save you a phone call because if you want to ask me to do anything that violates one of these principles, it’s nonnegotiable.

And so, I think I came away surprised that there was as much work that needed to be done as a conservative inside the movement as there was outside the movement and that we needed to put pen to paper and write down those values.

Allen: That’s huge.

And I love just the phrase “True North,” because you picture a compass with that arrow. And it’s such a great image, and it really represents what you do and what Heritage does for the conservative movement. Mrs. James, we’ve known you as Heritage president for the past four years, but you’ve had so many other roles throughout your career. Which one was your favorite, excluding Heritage?

James: Well, I’m glad you said “excluding Heritage,” because that would’ve been at the top of the list, but I think the other role was as George W. Bush’s director of the Office of Personnel Management because it was during 9/11 and my responsibility was to keep the American civil service functioning and operating on behalf of the American people through a major crisis.

And so, from that perspective, that was the job that I really appreciated, really enjoyed, and I think I really made a difference during that time. Having said that, my volunteer role that takes precedent over everything up to, and I’m sorry to say, even including Heritage was at, and is and will be, at the Gloucester Institute. Someone gave me a data point many years ago that said by the year 2050, and now they’ve seen 2045, minorities will be in the majority in this country.

And it occurred to me that if that’s true, and all indications are that it is, then what are we doing to prepare those communities for leadership? It is imperative to me to make sure that there is a credible voice speaking into the minority community and explaining, and understanding, helping them to understand conservative values.

And so I intend to spend the next few years of my life making sure that there is a credible voice speaking to the leadership in that community, current leadership and future leadership. I love this country too much, and I’ve said so many times as president of Heritage, that my goal is to leave my grandchildren a country that’s at least as free as the one I inherited.

We’re not there yet. There’s much to be done. And my small piece of this will be mentoring, training, educating the next generation of African American leadership for this country. I think it’s probably the most important life’s work I have had and will have.

Evans: Mrs. James, I’m so glad that you brought up the Gloucester Institute. It is so important. If any of our listeners want to get more information on that, where can they find that?

Oh, thank you for asking. They can find information, and they can find me at the Gloucester Institute. And if you just Google Gloucester Institute, it will come right up. And all of my contact information will be there. I grieve over where we are racially in our country right now. And I have said many, many times that we as conservatives do more right by accident it than the liberal left does on purpose.

I have seen racial healing within the conservative movement. We should lean into this moment as conservatives because we have the answers. We know this is not an inherently racist country. We know that. And how do we know it? Because we live it every single day.

My life is a model for what can happen in this country with opportunity and seizing the day. I have a positive message. I’m an optimistic, upbeat person by nature. And I think that we, as conservatives, have to lead racial reconciliation in this country.

I think that we have to lead by leaning into this next generation and encouraging them and bringing them in. And I intend to spend my fourth quarter doing just that.

Allen: Well, and Mrs. James, for those who aren’t familiar with your story and who aren’t familiar with the fact that you really have lived this, you have lived out this process of reconciliation, would you mind just taking a moment to share a little bit about how you went from the housing projects in Richmond to being president of the most influential think tank in the world?

It’s true. I was born on a kitchen table because the light was too dark in the small bedroom where my mother lived. That’s why I’m such a great cook. I was born in the kitchen, and to a very strong woman with a husband who suffered under the disease of alcoholism. And because of that, he did not support the family.

My mother had to raise six children by herself. She did a phenomenal job. She is my hero and inspiration. She’s been dead now for many, many years, but she still inspires and motivates me. And my mother trying to raise six children without a husband, living in the public housing projects, leaned heavily on her sisters. And I was given to a sister who was a schoolteacher and her husband was a businessman. And they raised me from the time I was 5 years old, gave me every opportunity for a great education.

Paid for college, sent me off. And when I graduated from college, it was there by the way that I grew in faith through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. And my faith has had a profound influence on my life, still does. And I graduated and immediately—because that’s what you do—went to work. And because I graduated early, I was supposed to be a schoolteacher, but it was in the middle of the year, so I ended up going into business, and I worked for the telephone company.

And while I was working there, I started a family. My husband and I actually decided that the black family was in such peril that we wanted to do it correctly. And we made the sacrifice for me to become a full-time, stay-at-home mom, which I did. And it was tough. It was tough.

We went from two people on two incomes to three people on one income. And my husband’s oversized shirts were my maternity clothes. It was awful. It was awful. And it was fabulous. Those were the difficult, wonderful days of starting a young family. And while I was a full-time, stay-at-home mom, I was asked to volunteer, and I started to volunteer for a crisis-pregnancy center.

And it was out of that volunteer work that someone said, would you mind going on and take the pro-life position and debate this lady from Planned Parenthood? And I just wouldn’t do it. I said, “Oh, my gosh, no, I’ve never debated anything before in my life. My husband and my family encouraged me to do it. I came to the attention of the National Right to Life. And they said that was such a phenomenal debate.

Would you like to become our spokesperson? And I said, “You have lost your mind. No.” But eventually I did. And it was while I was at National Right to Life that I became aware of and became a spokesperson for then-President [George] Herbert Walker Bush, who was running, and I met his son, and we became friends, George W. This was before he was governor, before he owned a baseball team, before all of that. And that was my entry into government service. And when he won, he asked if I would come in, and my first job was as an assistant secretary at the [Virginia] Department of Health and Human Resources.

And then one position after another engaged in lots of policy discussions and debates, served on the state board of education, served on the Fairfax County School Board. The education piece, the health policy piece, was asked to chair the National Gambling Commission by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. That was an interesting two years of my life. And it just goes on and on and on and on. Name an issue, I probably was at the middle of it at some point.

Allen: I love it. That’s so good.

Well, through all your years of public service, did you ever have the thought of, “I can’t do this anymore. America’s just too far gone. I just think I’m going to go home and spend time with my kids.

James: Never.

Evans: Never?

James: Never, ever. It’s too important. It’s too significant. And I love history, and I am too aware of the sacrifices that our Founders made. And I am often fond of saying the same kind of tenacity, the same kind of commitment, the same kind of courage, the same kind of sacrifice that was required of our Founders to launch this experiment is going to be required of each and every one of us to maintain it.

And sometimes I think we get so comfortable in our lives that we don’t realize that every day of our lives, we’re in a fight to maintain this great nation. And it’s going to be required of every one of us as citizens. Nobody, nobody gets a pass. Everybody needs to be in the arena, and I probably will be until the day I die.

Allen: Wow. Do you think we’re going to make it, Mrs. James?

James: Oh, I know we’re going to make it. I know we’re going to make it. I am not at all concerned. I believe in the American people. I have seen them rise up. We maybe get a little lazy every now and then, a little content every now and then, but I believe that the American spirit is so strong. Our sense of how we love liberty and freedom and the sacrifices that were made for us to enjoy this great country. I believe that every now and then we need to get a little shaken up, and people will rally. I am confident.

Allen: Good. Good to hear. I’m glad. Sometimes I worry.

I’m so inspired. I was listening to that. I’m, like, there’s so many great quotes that we can use.

Well, I really do. I’m the eternal optimist, but I don’t think I’m optimistic without reason.

Evans: Yeah.

I love working with young people, and I am so encouraged every time I speak to a group of our interns here. That was probably the most fun part of my job. I love spending time with young conservatives and their enthusiasm, their love for this country.

Their willingness to sacrifice lets me know that there’s a generation behind me that gets it. And that will be there for the fight. Having said that, I will also tell you one of the things that I was most discouraged by was the number of our members and some of our staff and even some of our board members every now and then who would say that they are discouraged by their children or grandchildren and how they have been captured by the left. And so I think we have to do a better job even in our own circles.

Allen: Yeah.

With our friends and family members, articulating a conservative message that they can rally behind.

Allen: Yeah, absolutely. How have you done that in your own family, and how have you balanced having the career that you have with family? Because I know family’s really important to you as you’ve talked about.

It really is. I usually tell young women, you can have it all, but not all at the same time.

Allen: Yeah.

And so I was a full-time, stay-at-home mom for many, many years. And I had the privilege in that role of shaping the young minds in our family. And I can’t stress enough that’s some of the most important work we can do as “problematic women.”

But that balance is … sometimes very difficult to achieve. And I would always use my own children as the barometer. They would tell me when I got out of kilter. And I remember a phone call I got one time when my youngest was probably around 10 or 11 years old. And he said, I was out somewhere giving speeches for the pro-life movement. And he didn’t say, “Mom, why can’t you come home?”

He said, “Mom, why won’t you come home?” And that made the biggest difference in my life. And that’s when I said, if I saved every unborn child in America, but lost my own, I would’ve failed in God’s primary mission for my life. And so, I always ask them and use them as the barometer for when I needed to step back, take a break, recalibrate.

And people say, you can judge by what your priorities are. Not by your wallet, where you give your money. Because that’s just too easy, to write a check. But by your calendar. That’s where you spend your time. And when I found I was spending way more time on the road and out there, and not enough time at home, I would recalibrate.

Allen: That’s so good.

Evans: Well, as you transition from being Heritage president, you’re going to be helping Virginia—not this Virginia, the state of Virginia’s new governor, transition into his new role. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what you’ll be doing for Gov.-elect [Glenn] Youngkin?

Sure. Well, I was honored. When you ask me about my sense of optimism, Virginia is a good example of that. The left just overreached, went too far, and the people of Virginia rose up and elected, not just Glenn Youngkin, but Winsome Sears. Oh, my word. And Jason [Miyares]. What a team. What a team.

And so, I was really honored having served in many transitions, both at the federal and the state level, that Gov.-elect Youngkin asked me to help out with that. I will be working with the hiring teams, trying to find great talent that can go in, because we know that personnel is policy.

Getting the right people in the right seats on the bus, that’s going in the right direction, will set the tone for his administration. Having gotten to know him personally, oh, he and Suzanne, his wife, are just phenomenal people. And I think we have the opportunity in Virginia to demonstrate what it looks like when it’s done well. And under his leadership, I think we have a great four years in front of us.

Allen: That’s exciting. Well, and this election in Virginia, it really became in some ways an election that took place on the national stage. Everyone was watching it. Why do you think it did become that? Why do you think so many people were watching what is going to happen in this Virginia governor’s race?

Well, I think, Virginia is a bellwether of course, and it gauges the mood and the tone of people right now. I think it was the perfect setup for what we’re going to see in 2022. And I think that people saw that with the overreach. It finally woke people up, and Glenn Youngkin was elected yes, by a Republican base. But just as important, by a large number of independents and Democrats who just wanted great policy, who wanted parents to have a say in their children’s education, who understood for the first time—oh, my word—what are they doing to our children and woke up.

And that’s why I have such optimism, because I do believe that the American people are waking up and understanding in ways that they didn’t before that politics and policy matter. When you elect someone who has a certain point of view or perspective, that’s going to get translated into policy, and it’s going to have an effect on your daily lives.

We don’t have the opportunity to sit back and say, “I don’t do politics. I don’t want to get involved in politics. I don’t understand public policy.”

By the way, since this is called “Problematic Women,” I believe that women are the theologians in the family. Who’s going to get asked the question, “How do we know God exists?” Moms have to be prepared for all of that.

I believe that they are the policymakers. They are the chief financial officers in the family. They should care more about policy than anyone, than anyone, and the implications in real time in terms of what it means for them and their families.

Problematic women have got to care about education policy. Problematic women have got to care about health care policy and the implications of what that means. They have got to care about financial policy and tax implications. And that’s why I love being a conservative, because most liberals only think we care about “women’s issues,” which I don’t even know what that means.

As far as I’m concerned, foreign policy is a women’s issue. National defense is a women’s issue. Health care policy is a women’s issue. We as women have got to care about all those things because it affects our lives in real time, in real ways.

Evans: Well, and you brought up Winsome Sears and the morning after the election, the left was just “Glenn Youngkin only won because all these white supremacists in Virginia came out in droves to elect [him].” I want to ask you a two-part question. No. 1: What do you think this says about the tactics of the left, moving forward towards 2022?

They are so desperate, so desperate. It’s pathetic. It is absolutely pathetic. And I don’t know if they believe that foolishness that they’re promoting. How can you believe that and actually look at the cross tabs in the polling data that came out? It’s just not true.

Do white supremacists elect black women holding guns? I don’t think they do. They supported Winsome Sears because she supports the Second Amendment. They supported her because she stood up for parental rights, and they are absolutely laughable and pathetic.

But I hope they stay there. I hope they stay right in that space. Keep selling that to yourselves, because nobody else is buying it. But if you believe it, you stay right there, and we’ll just keep winning elections.

Evans: Well, my second part of the question is Winsome Sears was fairly unknown until the election, and you’ve gotten to know her a little bit. Can you tell our audience who she is and what she’s like?

Well, I’ve actually known Winsome for over 20 years.

And she and I have a weekly call together where we talk about strategy and policy and going forward. She is a woman of faith, a woman of conviction. She is a woman of service, is a former Marine and she is tenacious. And keep your eye on her. You want to talk about a “problematic woman”? Oh, my word. Oh, my word. We need to get her in this studio.

Evans: Name the time and the place, we’ll be here.

I’ll get her up here. How about that?

Allen: OK. Well, we’re going to hold you to that.


Allen: We would love that.

Evans: All right. Well, we want to focus again back on you, Mrs. James.

Allen: I would love to ask you to share a little bit about one analogy that I love that you talk about. And that is the analogy of rubber balls and crystal balls. That has had a deep impact on my life. Would you talk a little bit about that for a moment?

I would love to take credit for it, but I actually heard it somewhere else. And it was many, many years ago, and it had a profound impact on me, and that is as problematic women, we juggle so many balls. We juggle our careers. We juggle our families. We juggle our community activities and support. Many of us have responsibilities in our churches.

And for me, it was important to identify all the things that I juggle in my life. Some of those things are rubber balls. And if I drop them, they bounce. Some are crystal balls. As much as I love the presidency and my role at The Heritage Foundation, it’s a rubber ball.

If I drop it, and I will, tomorrow at about 6 o’clock, it will bounce, and it’s going to bounce back even stronger than ever before, by the way, with our new president coming in. But the crystal balls in my life are my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my friends. The biggest crystal ball in my life is my faith. And so, maintaining my relationship with God and making sure that it’s a priority is important.

We really do need to take the time to identify those things, because sometimes we get confused and think that rubber balls are crystal, but we should never, ever, ever identify a crystal ball as rubber. And that really does help to determine how [to] spend our time. I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the fourth quarter of my life, hopefully have that much time left, with grandchildren. That’s a crystal ball.

I was shocked over the Thanksgiving holidays as I looked at my 17-year-old granddaughter, who is drop-dead gorgeous, who is smart as a whip, who is kind and all of that, and realizing—oh, my gosh—she’s only home for one more year. And then she’s off to college, and I have some very special things I want to do with her in that year. Those are crystal balls.

Allen: Yeah. I love that.

Evans: I love it, too. It takes the pressure off. Right? You don’t have to keep every ball in the air.


Evans: You just know what’s important to you. Well, Mrs. James, one thing that we really admire about you is your ability to say the hard stuff, but to say it with a smile. Why is that important? And where do you find the strength to continually do that?

Someone told me a long time ago that people love people who they think love them. Think about that. Unpack that a little bit. If you think someone doesn’t like you, you have a hard time liking them. And I decided to take that on very early on in my life and career to generate, to emanate from me, a genuine, not a fake, a genuine love for people, a genuine desire to communicate.

I don’t want to stomp my enemy. I want to win them over. I don’t want to annihilate the opposition. I want to win them. And, I think, for me, that’s always been a mantra for me.

To be sure, to be sure, in my career that has really been misinterpreted by some because when they see the smile, when they see me engaging in conversation with people who have opposing points of view or perspective, some view that as weakness, some view that as we need to annihilate them.

And I say, “I don’t want to annihilate them. I want to win them.” And that’s how I’ve maintained it. I believe that’s what Christ calls me to do. And that’s how I choose to live my life. And if it upset some people, they can deal with that.

Allen: Oh, I so respect that about you, Mrs. James. I love it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful quality. Well, thank you. This has been an honor and a joy, and we so appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

It has been my honor and my joy, and I will see you on the other side of that door at The Heritage Foundation as a very, very problematic woman.

Evans: And we’re looking forward to it.

Allen: We are.

Evans: Thank you, Mrs. James.

Thank you.

Allen: Thank you so much.

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