THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, September 25, 1994 TAG: 9409230261 SECTION: PORTSMOUTH CURRENTS PAGE: 10 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Cover Story SOURCE: BY IDA KAY JORDAN, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: Long : 196 lines
PORTSMOUTH-BORN KAY Coles James is a walking message for today's generation of children born into poverty and public housing.
She was one of them.
Unlikely as it is, she has become Virginia's most visible black conservative Republican. But her political affiliations might serve well the Virginia people she would most like to help.
As Virginia's secretary of Health and Human Resources, she plans to be more than a highly visible symbol of hope for today's children. She expects to create a network of programs specifically designed to help them help themselves.
``No one set of laws is going to end welfare as we know it,'' she said in an interview. ``We have to take all things at the same time - education, jobs, private groups especially churches - to make a difference.''
She expects, she said, to use her visibility as a ``bully pulpit to change the culture.''
``If there's not a work ethic, what good is a jobs program?'' she asked rhetorically. ``We can improve education, but what good is it if we don't use it?''
The notion of reforming the welfare system was ``the real challenge and the reason I took this job,'' James said.
``That I am able to serve in this capacity is testament not to the special `management' of public caseworkers, but to the strength and pride of my family,'' she said. ``Our refusal to rely on government assistance was due to the great respect Mama taught us to have in ourselves.''
JAMES WAS BORN June 1, 1949, in a barracks-like structure of cinder blocks on Carver Circle in Douglass Park. Her family lived in World War II housing built by the federal government for blacks who came to town to work in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and on other defense projects.
Her parents, Bernard and Sue Coles, moved here from Richmond, when her father found work at the shipyard.
``It was a wonderful time back then,'' said Wanetah Davis, an octogenarian who lived around the corner in Arcadia Heights and remembers the night Kay was born. ``Her daddy was the smartest man and her mama was the sweetest woman you could hope to know.''
Davis turned up at a recent Republican rally earlier this month to visit with James who was only a few years old when the Coles family left Portsmouth in the early 1950s.
``Bernard Coles had the most beautiful singing voice,'' Davis said. ``We used to have a good time sitting around talking and singing at our place.''
Davis' recollections of her parents confirm what James said in ``Never Forget,'' published in 1992 by Zondervan Publishing, a division of HarperCollins. James wrote the book with Jacqueline Cobb Fuller.
The book is sub-titled ``The Riveting Story of One Woman's Journey from Public Housing to the Corridors of Power.''
``One reason I wrote the book was my work with inner-city teenage girls,'' James said. ``I went looking for books for them to read and nothing in the bookstores looked like them. I wrote it because I believed they could relate to me.''
In the book, James talks about her loving father's alcohol problems that eventually caused her mother to leave and return to Richmond. Mother and six children moved into a public housing project.
James remembers those days with mixed feelings but emphasizes the good times with her family - and the importance of the neighbors who looked after each other in the housing project.
THE FIRST STEP toward welfare reform, she said, is child care.
James would like to see churches become involved with this aspect of improving the lives of poor youngsters.
``Too many churches are open only on Sunday,'' she said. ``I have but a short period of time, but I will do what I can to challenge communities.''
James frequently refers to her aunts and uncles, to people who are not blood relatives but who helped keep her family on the right track.
``A lot of young women today are disconnected from family supports,'' she said.
``My mother had tenacity and goals for herself and her six children,'' James said. ``She had love and she was connected to friends, to church, to her family.''
Over and over, James mentions family and church as the important ingredients in keeping kids on track.
``You know, in the black community, nothing happens if it doesn't come out of the church,'' she said. ``So the churches have no options in this matter. They have a special obligation to address what is happening to too many of our young people.''
As she has gone around the state talking to people, she asks former welfare recipients how they got off the public dole.
``One of the first things they mention is faith,'' she said. ``They point to churches and to family supports or to an individual in their lives - in some cases, a teacher. But there's always somebody.''
THE JOB JAMES has now is her first government job directly involved with people, she said.
``I am directly touching the lives of people in Virginia,'' she said. ``I see a problem and a solution, and I can make a difference.''
Her Washington jobs under President Bush were associate director for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and assistant secretary for public affairs in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
``They were staff positions, different from this job'' she said. ``I have a fire a minute now. If you don't enjoy eating problems for breakfast, then you don't want a Cabinet job.''
Even during a recent visit to Portsmouth, the beeper in her pocketbook was noisy. Her assistant carried a telephone in his pocket, and a couple of times, she moved to a corner for a conversation with Richmond.
But, she said, ``I am enjoying it.''
JAMES IS A former public affairs director of the National Right to Life Committee and outspoken in her opposition to abortion.
She illustrates her position with the story about a conversation with a supporter of legal abortion, who was arguing that a mother in public housing should be able to have a legal abortion because that would be better than having a child born into abject poverty.
James, the fifth child in her family, argued that she would not have been born had someone encouraged her mother to have an abortion under similar circumstances.
``Believing deeply in the value of human life from womb to tomb is the qualifier for me,'' she said.
Although she has not changed any of her beliefs about abortion, James did not spend a lot of time on the subject when it came up in an interview.
``I don't know why people would doubt my care and concern for people just because they disagree with me on abortion or any other issue,'' she said. ``I believe people of good will, character and fundamental integrity can disagree.''
MUCH HAS BEEN said about James' connection to the Bush administration. Ironically, she almost didn't take the job.
At the time of Bush's election, her mother was dying from cancer in Richmond. James mentioned to her mother that she had been offered a job by the new administration but turned it down.
From her hospital bed, her mother replied, ``I raised you better than that.''
And, her mother added, ``How many black folks you think been asked? Girl, you best get back on that phone and tell him you were just kidding when you said no.''
TALKING WITH WANETAH Davis listening, James said the role she is most proud of in her life is that of wife and mother of three children, two boys and a girl.
``I believe you can have it all as a woman, but not all at the same time,'' she said. ``Frankly, it's hard for me, balancing off all the demands.''
She stayed home with her children for seven of eight years. She suffered, she said, from the lack of self-esteem that many ``re-entry women'' have.
``When I decided to go back to work, I started by volunteering in a housing project.''
She and her husband, Charles, share responsibilities for the children.
``He's Mr. Mom tonight,'' she said. ``It takes a secure, self-assured confident man to be married to a woman like me. We do have a true partnership.''
But it is a lucrative arrangement.
As a cabinet secretary, she is paid almost $100,000 a year. Her husband, who was appointed by Gov. George Allen as director of the State Personnel and Training Department, is paid about $79,000.
On the Friday she recently was in Portsmouth, James was planning to pick up her daughter at Hampton University on the trip back to Richmond.
``You know, I think they may need us most at this stage of their lives,'' she said. ``When my daughter calls from Hampton to talk, I think that is as important as when she cried for me to change her diapers.''
Although she was in diapers herself when she left Portsmouth, James said it is part of her family history.
``Portsmouth is part of the oral tradition in our family,'' she said. ``My brothers remember it well, and when I was going to do the book, I got them around a table and a tape recorder remembering how it was.''
The high hopes of the young Coles family of the 1940s have been realized by James, who bridged a gap between then and now - beginning with being one of the first blacks to attend a formerly all-white high school in Richmond to now as a highly visible conservative black Republican. ILLUSTRATION: Staff photos by MARK MITCHELL
Color on the Cover: Kay Coles James
Portsmouth native is now the state's secretary of Health and Human
Kay Coles James - a Portsmouth native - expects to create a network
of programs designed to help people in poverty help themselves.
James keeps this picture of her with President Bush on her desk.
``Our refusal to rely on government assistance was due to the great
respect Mama taught us to have in ourselves.''
Reforming welfare was ``the real challenge and the reason I took
Kay Coles James is the featured speaker for the Virginia Beach
Neptune Festival Prayer Breakfast at 7 a.m. Tuesday at the Cavalier
Hotel Beach Club. Cost is $15. For tickets, call 498-0215.