James P. Rudolph began his esteemed career in public service with an apron on.
The second-youngest of nine children born to Harry Rudolph — who founded Harry’s Coffee Shop in 1960 — and his wife, Catherine, the 44-year-old La Jollan graduated from bussing tables at Harry’s to, eventually, working in both President Bill Clinton’s administration and, more recently, the State Department under President Barack Obama.
Yet even while working to stop and prevent atrocities in Africa, the attorney says it was the lessons he learned at Harry’s that guided him.
Rudolph now works locally for a Denver-based firm specializing in class-action lawsuits, but says he hasn’t ruled out a run for political office. The Light chatted with him in his Windansea apartment.
What was growing up at Harry's like?
“It was both exciting and humbling. Exciting because it was always busy. My dad was a bit of a taskmaster, and we all had our roles to play. The girls were mostly waitresses and the boys were busboys, hosts, dishwashers and short-order cooks. So that was a good lesson, learning how to get up at 5 a.m., keep a schedule and be responsible.
It was also humbling in that our job was to serve the public. People came in not only to eat but to be acknowledged, welcomed and treated the right way. My dad always said everyone has to be treated equally. So even on bad days, you had to move beyond your own mood. I haven’t pursued that path, but it’s still in my blood.”
What’s a story about your dad that nobody knows?
“My dad was a practical joker. We were driving once in the mountains in Aspen late at night. It was pitch black out. We were lost but he wouldn’t admit it, and my mom knew we were lost. So they started having a bit of a fight. My dad pulled over and said, ‘OK, get out and ask for directions.’ As soon as she closed the door, he drove off. So we heard my mom screaming, but he was just going to make a U-turn and we all laughed our heads off.”
Do all the siblings still own Harry’s?
“No. My parents sold it in 2005 to Harry (III), John and Liz. At that point, I was in Washington D.C., pursuing my career in the law and for years and years had given no indication that I was interested in working at the restaurant. But Harry, John and Liz had been working there for years, so it seemed natural to offer it to them. Then, in 2009 or 2010, Liz sold her share, so now it’s just Harry and John who own it.”
When did you realize you wanted something else?
“I learned pretty early on that I didn’t want that kind of lifestyle, because it takes a lot out of you. To run it successfully, you have to be there all the time, seven days a week, holidays. At that time, I wanted to go into psychology. I was a psychology major for two years before switching over to political science and international affairs.”
How did you end up in the State Department?
“In 2014, I was working at a law firm in San Diego and was disenchanted. So I started looking at various fellowships. I applied for a Franklin Fellowship, which is for mid-career professionals with a minimum of 10 years’ work experience. They have doctors, lawyers, officers from all branches of the military. You list your top choices for areas you’d like to work. So I applied for international law and human rights.
Seven or eight months later, I got a call from the State Department. They said they wanted to talk to me about my application. I said, ‘What application?’ I’d forgotten about it, so I thought they had the wrong person or were mistaken. And then it dawned it me.
I found out they hired me because they liked my writings on Africa. I had written a piece on Mali and another one on the Central African Republic. I had always felt compelled to learn as much as I could about Africa — what led to the situations we saw in Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had these mass killings.”
Working to stop atrocities sounds emotionally taxing.
“Yeah. In many ways, you need your own therapy after dealing with these issues. And in fact, many of the foreign-service officers go through post-traumatic stress counseling. But it’s also exciting because a lot of good work can happen in some of these countries.”
Are there any problems you came across that the American public doesn’t know about yet?
“Ethiopia has some major problems. But because it’s a strong ally of ours, it tends not to get as much critical press.”
Would you still be working at the State Department if Donald Trump hadn’t been elected president?
“There was no guarantee, but I knew that the results of the election meant the end of my time at the State Department. Even though the Franklin Fellowship is a nonpartisan fellowship, I knew that the atmosphere at the state department would soon be changing.”
After such a rewarding experience, how do you avoid feeling disenfranchised as an attorney again?
“I like the firm I’m with and the work, because our firm goes up against these big companies to ensure that they treat their employees right or that they aren’t defrauding investors. So if you define human rights broadly, I’m still working on behalf of the little guy. But, having said that, there’s no doubt I want to go back into some kind of government work.”
Have you thought about entering politics?
“I’d love to do it at some point. It’s been an interest of mine for many, many years. When? I don’t know. But I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
Do you think your father would be proud of you?
“I know he was. He expressed it on a couple of occasions. He died before I had children (two boys and a girl) but it’s nice to know that he saw me go to law school and pass the bar. He did see me work at the U.S. Agency for International Development. That was during the Clinton Administration. My dad was always a Republican. To his credit, he moved beyond any personal animus toward Bill Clinton and was proud of the fact that I was working in Washington in a presidential administration. In fact, for many years, he had a framed picture on the wall-of-fame at Harry’s of me, Bill and Hillary.”
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