National News

Heritage Foundation Names New President After Turmoil Under DeMint

Posted December 19, 2017 7:49 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that has influenced Republican White Houses and shaped conservative policy since the 1970s, named a new president on Tuesday who has deep ties to the party’s social conservative and evangelical Christian wing as it moved to steady itself after a year of internal turmoil.

Kay Coles James, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, will fill the vacancy left this year when Heritage’s board unexpectedly removed Jim DeMint, the former senator from South Carolina who became a leading practitioner of the uncompromising, no-apologies style of conservatism that characterized the Tea Party revolt.

If DeMint’s appointment in 2013 was a sign that Heritage was embracing the grass-roots energy that had proved so disruptive to the Republican Party, naming James was an acknowledgment that many inside the organization believe Heritage had strayed from its mission of acting as the intellectual and policy guide star for conservatives.

Like other institutions that had grown comfortable in their roles as fixtures of the political establishment, Heritage has struggled to find a meaningful role for itself in President Donald Trump’s Washington. Some inside the group complained that it had little influence in shaping debates on Capitol Hill that conservatives should have been far better prepared for — like the struggle over repealing the Affordable Care Act.

And a few of Heritage’s largest donors and board members like Rebekah Mercer, whose family helped finance Trump’s campaign, agitated for change, arguing that the group was squandering its opportunity to lead at a time when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House.

Inside the organization, people viewed James as a safe choice who, while unlikely to resolve the tensions over Heritage’s direction, would not make them any worse.

James has been a member of Heritage’s board of trustees for over a decade and is close to the interim president, Edwin J. Feulner, a founder of the organization. Until recently, she had been leading the search committee for a new president.

“I am confident that under her leadership Heritage will remain committed to conservative principles and to expanding the conservative movement in a positive, inclusive way,” Feulner said Tuesday.

As a black woman, James has been an anomaly in the conservative movement, which is dominated by white men. When she spoke to Heritage employees on Tuesday morning, she told a story from her youth in Virginia and how she walked the halls in an integrating school only to be kicked, called names and stuck with pins. “It turned me into a fighter,” she said.

Addressing the direction of the organization under her leadership, she assured people that she would not carry out any drastic changes.

The Daily Signal, a website run by Heritage, reported her as saying: “You have my commitment: Heritage is safe with me. I’m in awe of this treasure you’ve built, and I pledge to you that I will protect it and grow it with the greatest care possible.”

In conservative circles, James was always seen as more of a behind-the-scenes player than as someone who sought the spotlight. But her work has spanned the movement and beyond. Outside government, she worked for the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council and was dean of the school of government at Regent University, a Christian school founded by Pat Robertson.

George W. Bush picked James to lead the Office of Personnel Management, the government’s human resources arm. There she oversaw the enforcement of policies that were championed as part of Bush’s faith-based initiatives, including offering federal employees a Catholic health plan that specifically excludes payment for contraceptives, abortion, sterilization and fertility treatment.

James held smaller roles in the first Bush and Reagan administrations. Anti-abortion activism has been one of her most personal causes. In 1996, Bob Dole’s presidential campaign selected her as the secretary of the Republican National Convention, a job given to her because she was passed over as the chairwoman of the subcommittee that dealt with the party platform’s abortion plank. The Dole campaign said at the time that it wanted someone with more moderate views on the issue.