Cabinet pick to ‘change the trajectory of the commonwealth’

From integrating Richmond schools to the GOP establishment: a look at Va.’s new secretary of the commonwealth 

By: - January 15, 2022 12:09 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Kay Coles James, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s new secretary of the commonwealth, is a staunch conservative with an unconventional origin story in Virginia. 

James was born in Portsmouth, grew up in public housing with a family she has described as “dysfunctional” and was eventually raised by her aunt and uncle.

As a seventh grader, she was among the first Black students to integrate Richmond’s Chandler Junior High School in 1961. She later became the first woman and the first African American to lead a prominent conservative think-tank in D.C., The Heritage Foundation. 

After graduating from the historically Black Hampton University, she went on to work for conservative groups, Republican presidential administrations and was the chief architect of a welfare reform overhaul for Republican Virginia Gov. George Allen. She also cut Virginia state employee staff levels as part of a broad down-sizing effort.

For her next stint in Virginia government, James, 72, will serve as Youngkin’s secretary of the commonwealth. The secretary of the commonwealth helps the governor fill appointments on boards and commissions and processes and reviews pardon petitions for “executive clemency,” among other duties.

Kay Cole James, former president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, is Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s nominee to be the next secretary of the commonwealth. (Youngkin Transition Team)

“Our shared vision combined with her tremendous experience will pave the way for a new day in Virginia. Kay has an extensive public service background; she has always been a leader and innovator in Virginia government,” Youngkin said in a statement Jan. 7 announcing the appointment. “Together we will change the trajectory of the commonwealth as we deliver on the Day One promises.”

There are currently more than 100 appointment openings on Virginia boards and commissions that will fall under her purview– ranging from the Maternal Mortality Review Team, School Readiness Committee, Clean Energy Advisory Board, Virginia Lottery Board and education boards. 

Youngkin’s selection of James falls in line with his campaign effort to try to appeal to all Republicans and should be a “big plus” to help him maintain credibility with conservatives, according to author and politics professor Mark Rozell. Rozell is dean of the school of policy and government at George Mason University. 

“Kay Coles James has impressive party establishment credentials for sure, and yet she also is completely acceptable to the dominant Trump-wing of the Republican Party, especially the evangelical conservatives. That is the kind of person Youngkin needs to help keep the Trump party base and the more traditional Republican groups all in line with his agenda,” Rozell said. “She can be a kind of bridge to the differing party factions.” 

Youngkin’s team said James was not available for an interview. 

James has worked for every Republican president of her adulthood except Trump. She served in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and led the Office of Personnel Management under President George W. Bush. As head of OPM, she helped the Bush administration start the new Department of Homeland Security after the attacks of September 11, 2001

She has tried to walk the line with Trump supporters. She served on Trump’s transition team and publicly stated that she had wanted a position in his administration but said she was blocked by reality TV star and former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman. 

She stepped in as president of the Heritage Foundation in 2018, after the board ousted former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a leader in the Tea Party movement.

Prior to working for Allen in 1994, James was on the board of the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family and senior vice president of Family Research Council, a conservative Christian right group and lobbying organization. 

An alarming selection for progressives

James’s work with Heritage and other conservative groups is a concern for groups like Equality Virginia, which advocates for LGBTQ+ Virginians. 

“We are alarmed that Governor-elect Youngkin has named Kay Coles James as the secretary of the commonwealth,” said Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia.

One red flag for the group: while at Heritage, James opposed the Equality Act, an executive order and legislative proposal that would give civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ people. James tweeted in 2019 that the Equality Act is “anything but equality,” saying it would shut down businesses and “open every female bathroom and sports team to biological males.” 

“This is unacceptable. Youngkin claims that he wants to ‘make Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family,’ and that must include LGBTQ+ Virginians and their families,” said Lamneck. 

Under James’ leadership, Heritage also opposed President Joe Biden’s  COVID-19 vaccine mandate, eventually filing a lawsuit against it. Last week, Youngkin announced his own plans to challenge the mandate, though it was partially struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday. Google opted to pull the plug on its own artificial intelligence ethics council in 2019 after an employee backlash when the company asked James to serve on the body. The “Googlers” complained about James’ views on gender and immigration. 

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Virginia Mercury.