A graduate of Hampton University, James is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, most recently the Doctor of Laws Degree from Pepperdine University. James is the recipient the University of Virginia's Publius Award for Public Service, and the Spirit of Democracy Award for Public Policy Leadership from the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
As 1994 graduation speaker at Hampton University, her alma mater, James said, using the incurable disease as a metaphor for widespread social ills,
[The United States is] experiencing cultural AIDS. We as a country have been the victims of an immune system that has broken down. It's gone.
James has served on the Fairfax County School Board and the Virginia Board of Education, and on the board of the conservative evangelical Focus on the Family. She also was Senior Vice President of the Family Research Council, the conservative, Christian right group and lobbying organization. She has also served as Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer for One to One Partnership, a national umbrella organization for mentoring programs.
She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and reappointed by President George H. W. Bush as member of the National Commission on Children, an advisory body on children issues. She served under President George H. W. Bush as Associate Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and as Assistant Secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In the mid-1990s, James served as Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She also served as Convention Secretary for the 1996 Republican National Convention, which nominated Bob Dole for president.
James served as the director for the United States Office of Personnel Management from 2001 to 2005 in the George W. Bush administration.
Paul Krugman, a liberal New York Times opinion columnist, noting that Regent University boasted of 150 graduates working in the Bush administration, criticized James' tenure as the federal government’s chief personnel officer when many of these hires occurred. Boston Globe, journalist Charlie Savage wrote that previous to James' work as director of OPM, "veteran civil servants screened applicants and recommended whom to hire, usually picking top students from elite schools." Noting that Regent University is ranked a "tier four" school by US News & World Report, the lowest score and essentially a tie for 136th place, Savage said James' changes resulted in lawyers with more conservative credentials, less prior experience in civil rights law and the decline of the average ranking of the law school attended by the applicants. In addition to Savage, other liberal commentators made similar assertions.
Subsequent to her OPM position, James accepted employment with MZM, a defense contractor. James' reported compensation from MZM included a $150,000 signing bonus and a $350,000 base salary. James left MZM after two months during the scandal involving California Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham. Athena Innovative Solutions Inc., the successor to MZM, sued James for roughly $84,000 that it contended was due them from her signing bonus. The two settled out of court.
James is President and Founder of The Gloucester Institute, an organization that trains and nurtures leaders in the African American community.
She is currently a member of the board of trustees for the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative Washington, D.C.-based public policy research institute.
On November 4, 2009 the then Governor-Elect Bob McDonnell of Virginia named her one of the Co-Chairs of his transition committee and subsequently appointed her as a member of Virginia Commonwealth University's governing body, the Board of Visitors.
James is the mother of three grown children and the wife of Charles E. James who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs from 2001 to 2009 during the administration of George W. Bush.
In a 1994 interview, James said she expected to use her visibility as a "bully pulpit to change the culture."
In 2003, James was named the 2003 Distinguished Christian Statesman, describing her as a Christian statesman who makes it clear that the only way to transform any culture is from the inside out and that 'the children of God will be called upon to lead the way.' The award came from the conservative televangelist D. James Kennedy's Center for Christian Statesmanship which states that "America needs Christian Statesmen. This is our best and brightest hope."Never Forget, Transforming America: From the Inside Out (1995); and What I Wish I'd Known Before I Got Married (2001).
Kay James (coauthor Jacquelline Cobb Fuller), Zondervan (April 1995) ISBN 0-310-49631-4.
Transforming America: From the Inside Out. (coauthor David Kuo) Zondervan (June 1995) ISBN 0-310-48440-5 .
What I Wish I'd Known Before I Got Married, Multnomah Publishers (October 13, 2001) ISBN 1-57673-781-0.