Former presidential candidate Herman Cain has died

Herman Cain, with his natural showman’s instinct, reinvented himself multiple times over his lifetime: computer analyst, millionaire business executive, political lobbyist, broadcaster, motivational speaker, author and presidential candidate.

The Henry County resident was as successful and opinionated as he was unforgettable, but COVID-19 has silenced him, Cain’s current and former employees confirmed Thursday. He was 74.

“We’re heartbroken, and the world is poorer: Herman Cain has gone to be with the Lord,” an employee wrote on Cain’s Instagram page.

Cain had been hospitalized since July 1 after traveling to multiple places in June, including a rally for his close ally President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20 in which he was photographed not wearing a mask. His death immediately prompted sharp comments on social media over the GOP’s attitudes toward masks and racial inequalities surrounding COVID-19.

Herman Cain, as a Republican presidential candidate, approaches the stage with his wife, Gloria, to speak at a campaign event in Atlanta on Dec. 3, 2011. Cain, a former business executive who was recently hospitalized with the coronavirus, has died, current and former employees confirmed Thursday. He was 74. (Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times)

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Cain’s supporters, including Trump, spoke instead of his charisma and how he emerged from humble beginnings to become an accomplished businessman and prominent figure within the GOP.

“Herman had an incredible career and was adored by everyone that ever met him, especially me,” Trump tweeted. “He was a very special man, an American Patriot, and great friend.”

Close friend and fellow radio host Neal Boortz said, “You combine his faith, a personality that enjoyed everybody and his accomplishments in his life — it’s a pretty extraordinary package.”

Cain is survived by his wife, Gloria; his daughter, Melanie Gallo; son, Vincent Cain; and four grandchildren.

Upward trajectory

Cain was born Dec. 13, 1945, in Memphis, Tennessee, and moved to Atlanta with his working-class parents at an early age. His mother was a domestic worker and his father a chauffeur to then-Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff.

After high school, Cain earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Morehouse College. From there, his trajectory was all upward until a few bumps slowed him later in life.

He received a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University, then stormed the business world. He worked as a ballistics analyst for the U.S. Navy. Back in Atlanta, he worked as a computer systems analyst at Coca-Cola.

During the 1980s, he managed 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia area when the fast-food company was a Pillsbury subsidiary. He later became chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, a Pillsbury-owned chain, dropping troubled franchises and unpopular menu items and launching inventive ad campaigns. He held the position for about a decade.

In 1994, Cain made headlines for challenging President Bill Clinton during a nationally televised townhall-style meeting over a proposed health care plan that ultimately failed. The confrontation made him a GOP star, and Newsweek at the time identified Cain as one of the plan’s “saboteurs.”

Soon after, Cain became CEO of the National Restaurant Association in Washington. While head of that trade group, he bolstered its image and clout.

As CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain (in a 1993 photo) was a principal figure in turning the struggling chain around.

Credit: Bob Paskach

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Credit: Bob Paskach

Cain fought restaurant smoking bans, lobbied against reducing blood-alcohol limits as a way to prevent drunken driving and fought minimum-wage increases. He became friends with U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, who placed Cain on a congressional study group on tax reform.

After Cain left the Restaurant Association in 1999, he moved back to Georgia, focusing on motivational speaking and penning books before briefly considering a presidential run in 2000.

Cain became the most high-profile Black Republican to run for statewide office in 2004 when he ran in a three-man GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. He challenged front-runner Johnny Isakson from the right, especially on abortion, and ultimately came in second with 26% of the vote, behind Isakson but ahead of U.S. Rep. Mac Collins.

It was after Cain’s Senate loss that he fell into radio, said his friend Martha Zoller, a conservative talk show host in Gainesville.

“After he lost the primary, I was taking a few days off and needed a fill in host for the radio show. So I called Herman Cain,” Zoller wrote in a blog post Thursday. Cain, she said, “had the gift of gab.”

In 2008, Cain joined WSB Radio as a night talk show host.

In the interim years, Cain battled and overcame liver and colon cancer. By 2010, his audience had grown substantially. He addressed more than 40 tea party rallies, hit early primary states and became a Fox News regular.

Presidential bid

In May 2011, Cain announced his candidacy for the White House, requiring him to drop his radio show. He ran as an anti-Washington conservative with business acumen.

Cain received a lot of attention promoting his 9-9-9 tax plan, which a flat 9% income tax, 9% business tax and 9% federal sales tax.

His candidacy surged following a surprise win in a closely contested Florida straw poll. He briefly led in the polls.

But Cain also made several missteps, including telling a cable TV interviewer that the government shouldn’t tell a woman she can’t get an abortion. Cain later insisted he opposed abortion in all cases, including rape and incest.

He suspended his campaign in December 2011 after battling allegations of sexual misconduct. Two women told Politico that Cain sexually harassed them when he was head of the Restaurant Association and that he made financial settlements with both of them.

Cain called the allegations “false and unproven,” but the damage was done, especially after a Dunwoody woman said she had carried on a 13-year extramarital affair with him. Cain denied the accusation but acknowledged making payments to the woman.

“These false and unproven allegations continue to be spinned in the media and in the court of public opinion so as to create a cloud of doubt over me and this campaign and my family,” Cain said as he announced the suspension of his campaign. “That spin hurts.”

Herman Cain walks with his wife, Gloria, as he exits his campaign bus before he announced the suspension of his campaign for president. (AJC file/Jason Getz)

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Cain returned to radio in January 2013, taking over for Boortz as a syndicated talk show host. He left that job in 2018, continuing to do shows on his website since then. He also began hosting his own TV show this year with the conservative cable network NewsMax.

Herman Cain stepped down as a talk show host on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB in 2018 but continued to do shows on his website since then.

Credit: Herman Cain in 2017. CR: Rodney Ho/

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Credit: Herman Cain in 2017. CR: Rodney Ho/

Morehouse Man

Cain was the rare Black Republican who rose high in the ranks and seemed at times to take positions that were more conservative than many of his white colleagues.

“Herman was a trailblazer,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. “Here was an African American businessman saying very close to the same things that Rush Limbaugh and other conservative Republicans were saying, but able to say it in his own way, which was sort of a down-to-earth, businessman speak.”

“I think it helped Republicans break some of these class and race barriers and see that conservatism can translate to all classes, races and groups,” he added.

Cain often called himself an “ABC candidate,” an American Black conservative. That position, however, frequently put him at odds with the Democratic politics of many of the alumni of his alma mater, Morehouse College, though some saw elements of his training as a Morehouse Man shining through. He remained a lifetime member of the National Alumni Association and was a former member of Morehouse’s board of trustees.

Herman Cain as a Morehouse College student in 1965.

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Michael Lomax, the president of the United Negro College Fund and a 1968 graduate of Morehouse, told the AJC when he watched Cain on television and in debates, and even when studying his business accomplishments, he saw familiar tropes.

“He is vintage Morehouse, as far as I am concerned,” Lomax said. “Strong personality. Forceful. Engaging. A supercharged ego. ... Those are all elements of Morehouse.”

Leo Smith, a strategist who previously oversaw minority engagement for the Republican National Committee and the Georgia Republican Party, counts Cain as a mentor, starting from the days when he began listening to Cain’s radio show.

“When my interest in politics and capitalism converged, Herman was one of the people who I thought represented a rising up of understanding that to be anti-racist can also mean to be pro-capitalist, because capitalism gives freedom,” said Smith, now the CEO of the public affairs shop Engaged Futures Group.

Smith said few people got to see another side of Cain: a mentor to young Black men interested in conservative leadership. “He did it quietly, but few knew how forcefully supportive Herman Cain was against racist attitudes in the party,” Smith said.

Trump train

In recent years, Cain became a vocal supporter of Trump’s. He co-chaired Black Voices for Trump and launched a super PAC in 2018 to support the president’s agenda and GOP priorities.

In 2019, Trump tapped Cain for a 14-year term on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, whose members oversee the nation’s monetary policy and help set interest rates.

Cain had served on the board of the Kansas City branch of the Federal Reserve in the 1990s, an advisory post typically reserved for local business executives.

Cain’s nomination, however, was short-lived.

His beliefs and political ties were criticized even by critics of the Federal Reserve. Cain had previously called for a return to the gold standard, a controversial position, and the body has a reputation for being independent and apolitical, often in the face of presidential displeasure.

When it became clear he couldn’t win confirmation in the U.S. Senate, particularly given his past sexual harassment allegations in the aftermath of #MeToo, Cain withdrew his name from consideration.

Cain’s admirers took to social media Thursday to share their tributes.

Gov. Brian Kemp called Cain an “unwavering patriot, a conservative stalwart & a deeply wise, thoughtful man who lived the American Dream.”

Former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart remembered Cain as a team player and a public speaker like none other.

“He would bring down the house on any occasion,” she said. “He just fired you up, he got you moving.”