Changes in Youngkin administration

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 8/31/2023, 6 p.m.
Kay Coles James has stepped down as Secretary of the Commonwealth, and Harold W. Clarke is retiring as director of …
Gov. Youngkin

Kay Coles James has stepped down as Secretary of the Commonwealth, and Harold W. Clarke is retiring as director of the state’s prison system.

The departure of the two senior Black state officials will usher in new leadership at several agencies in Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin’s administration.

Gov. Youngkin described Ms. James as “a leader, a trailblazer and a dedicated public servant to our Commonwealth and our nation” in announcing the departure of a key person in handling patronage appointments to policy positions.

“What a pleasure it has been serving the citizens of the Com- monwealth and working with him and other cabinet members to deliver on his promise to make Virginia the best place to live, work and raise a family,” Ms. James said.

As secretary, her duties included recommending appointments to boards and commissions, overseeing restoration of released felons’ voting and civil rights, working with Virginia’s Native American tribes and appointing notary publics to authenticate documents.

During her tenure, the governor drew fire for ending the virtually automatic restoration of rights of released felons that began under Republican Gov. Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell and accelerated under the two Democratic governors that succeeded him.

Gov. Youngkin tapped the current director of the Virginia Lottery, Kelly Gee, as Ms. James’ replacement, opening the door to a new leader at that agency.

Ms. James, 74, will remain engaged as a senior adviser to Gov. Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia Political Action Committee, which is coordinating the Republican effort to maintain control of the House of Delegates and regain a majority in the state Senate in the upcoming Nov. 7 election.

A Portsmouth native who grew up in Richmond’s public housing, Ms. James was the first Black woman to serve as president of the Heritage Foundation, an activist conservative think tank.

She also served as the state secretary of health and human resources in Gov. George F. Allen’s cabinet in the 1990s and as director of the U.S. Department of Personnel Management under President George Bush. She previously was an assistant cabinet secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

A graduate of Hampton University, Ms. James’ wide-ranging career also includes service on the Fairfax School Board and the state Board of Education and as a dean of the government school at Regent University in Virginia Beach.

She and her husband, Charles E. James Sr., also founded the Gloucester Institute, a leadership training program for young African-Americans, after purchasing the former Moton Center in Gloucester.

Separately, Mr. Clarke, 70, will close out his 13-year tenure as head of the Department of Corrections after the Labor Day holiday.

Gov. Youngkin announced that the current chair of the Virginia Parole Board, Clarkson Dotson, would succeed Mr. Clarke. He also named Patricia West, a former judge and former state secretary of public safety, as the new chair of the Parole Board.

During his tenure, Mr. Clarke has won applause for his initiatives to reduce recidivism, or the return of released prisoners for new offenses, to the lowest level in the nation, but also has faced repeated often successful lawsuits over harsh policies toward Muslim inmates, solitary confinement and instances of brutality toward those incarcerated.

In his 49-year career in corrections, which he began as a counselor in a Nebraska prison, he rose to lead prison systems in Nebraska, Washington and Massachusetts before Gov. McDonnell tapped him to run Virginia’s system in 2010.

He became so respected the General Assembly removed the civilian oversight board that once reviewed and approved his operations and policies.

Mr. Clarke is a past president of American Correctional Association and of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.