Kay Coles James

President, The Heritage Foundation


Fast Facts

Kay Coles James

Chief of GOP’s policy lab

Industry: Think tanks
Key previous position: Director, Office of Personnel Management
Education: Hampton
Notable fact: Served in Reagan administration


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Kay Coles James wants to make “conservative” a label people across the country can wear proudly.

“We know—the data tells us—that people are largely far more conservative than they are willing to say out loud,” James said. “Literally and figuratively, I want to put a new face on what it means to be a conservative.”

James is the first black president and the first female president of the Heritage Foundation, one of D.C.’s most visible and influential conservative think tanks. She took the reins at the start of 2018 after a period of turmoil following the ouster of then-President Jim DeMint. She had been on the board of trustees since 2005 and was leading the search to find DeMint’s replacement, until the board decided they preferred her to any candidate they had seen.

Her résumé spans boardrooms, C-suites, statehouses, and lecture halls. James served as director of the Office of Personnel Management in George W. Bush’s administration from 2001 to 2005. Before that, she was dean of Regent University’s School of Government and Virginia’s secretary of Health and Human Resources.

It’s been quite a climb for the daughter of a welfare recipient who lived in government housing as a child. But she disputed the idea that her story wouldn’t resonate with other members of Heritage’s board.

“Surprisingly, you’ll find there may be more in common than you may think,” James said. “There are a lot of people on that board who started with nothing, who built themselves up based on the goodness of this country and the opportunities that were presented to them.”

Listing issues that expand beyond the Supreme Court, where Heritage’s influence is most recognizable, James says she plans to make sure the organization remains “the best in class.” As far as what she’ll do differently as president, her goal is to “take our messages to places where we haven’t been before and invite people in.”
Madelaine Pisani