This story is one of a series of profiles of likely candidates for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination. IowaWatch will be publishing profiles on other candidates in the next several months. Its focus will be on those who will be campaigning in Iowa for the caucuses.
WAUKEE – Herman Cain was the first potential presidential candidate to come from behind the white curtains at a forum by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, and he appeared to make an impression on the audience who surrounded him.
Cain, a conservative radio talk show host from Atlanta and former CEO and president of Godfather’s Pizza, has been touring Iowa getting a feel for how much support he would have in a run for the presidency.
Guests swarmed around the successful businessman to ask questions, and as swiftly as he blotted the sweat from his forehead, Cain spouted quick solutions to America’s problems.
“We’ve got to empower businesses to create jobs; government can’t create jobs,” he said.
Before the day was over, the 65-year-old Republican with Tea Party popularity, touched on many others issues dear to Republican hearts: gay marriage, big government, immigration reform – all of which he opposes.
“It wasn’t right to sue the state of Arizona when they were simply trying to protect themselves,” he said, referring to U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s suit to stop Arizona from enforcing a new state immigration law that cracks down on illegal immigrants.
Despite the philosophical similarities with other Republicans, Cain is spending a lot of time in Iowa trying to distinguish himself from the growing list of other likely caucus aspirants with more recognizable names, like Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty.
“Yes I’m running to win”
Aside from being the only African-American candidate, Cain’s background, air of confidence and manner of speaking are helping him do that.
“My best ideas come from listening to people, not from running my mouth,” he said in an interview at the event.
Cain recognizes that he is going against the odds and that people wonder if he means business in this campaign.
“People ask, well are you running to win?” Cain said. “Yes I’m running to win. I wouldn’t be doing this for fun!”
Cain’s critics often say he lacks political experience and has never held any form of public office. They also question Cain’s ability to get elected because he isn’t yet a household name.
Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said, Cain is “taking the process seriously. He has to, because he doesn’t have that name recognition.”
Hagle said Cain’s biggest competition may come from another business-oriented potential candidate – real-estate guru Donald Trump.
Hagle said Cain’s financial experience will be important to Republican voters this time around because of issues like the federal deficit. However, he may lack experience in foreign policy, Hagle said.
Some candidates may run now for future elections or for vice president, he said. Hagle said he could envision Cain in a high-level secretary position if a Republican wins the election in 2012.
Noting that some critics discount Cain’s chances, Hagle said he wouldn’t dismiss him entirely.
This campaign is not the first time Cain, 65, has gone against the odds. His life story is one of steady progress from a childhood shadowed by racial discrimination through adulthood when he dealt with the death of his younger brother, business challenges and a bout with cancer.
Cain Growing Up
He grew up in the Deep South during one of the most violent periods of the civil rights era. Cain, like most African-Americans in the region, encountered almost daily impediments to the political, employment and educational opportunities and the legal rights that white people enjoyed. They had to accept legal discrimination and mandatory segregation at most any public facility or business, ranging from restrooms and water fountains to restaurants and movie theaters.
Cain’s parents, Luther and Lenora, left farming lives to achieve their “American dream,” he said. His father was a barber, janitor, and chauffeur from Tennessee, sometimes working all three jobs at once, and his mother was a domestic worker from Atlanta.
Cain also had a brother, Thurman, who was 18 months his junior.
“As far as my mother was concerned, we were twins,” Cain said.
The brothers were very close growing up, but they didn’t enjoy the rhyming names their mother had given them, he said.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Cain said, laughing. “My mom thought it was cute. Well, we didn’t think it was so cute, but we had to live with it.” Cain’s brother died in 1999 due to illness.
He had to ride segregated buses that require blacks to move to the back of the bus.
He once recalled an incident in a department store at a water fountain with his brother. They wanted a drink of water. He said his mother warned: “Make sure ya’ll drink out of the colored fountain.” After he and his brother contemplated drinking out of the white fountain, they slyly tried the “white water,” he said in The Daily Caller interview.
“We looked at each other,” Cain said. “The water tastes the same! What’s the big deal?”
During elementary school Cain said he participated in his school’s chorus, even though he really wanted to play for the band. His parents, however, couldn’t afford an instrument, he said.
It wasn’t until high school that Cain would finally learn to play the trombone, thanks to an extra instrument in the Samuel Howard Archer High School band room.
Although Cain said he was behind other students who had been playing longer, he spent most of his free time practicing and rehearsing, then became student director of the band.
During his senior year, Cain got his first taste of politics. He had participated in student government and friends and faculty urged him to run for a leadership role, he said. Cain won the class presidency, but he admitted he wasn’t particularly politically motivated at the time.
“[Friends and faculty] must have seen something in me leadership wise that I never really stopped to think about,” Cain said.
After high school, Cain decided to be the first in his family to attend college and get a degree, and Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male school in Atlanta, offered him a tuition scholarship.
“Morehouse chose me,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to go to school out of state or out of the city.”
His math teacher, Charles S. Johnson, encouraged Cain to accept the tuition scholarship from Morehouse and to major in mathematics.
And so he did.
“[Johnson] said [math] will train your mind analytically for whatever you decide to do,” Cain said. “I have a very analytical mind, and math helped me to develop that.”
He joined the band and glee club, eventually becoming president of the singing group and drum major of the marching band.
“You know, you have to be a little bit of a showman,” he said, referring to his drum major years. “You also have to command the respect of the band members.”
Cain said he never sought to be a leader. “But people have always urged me to take over leadership responsibilities.”
In his junior year he met his future wife, Gloria, at a mutual friend’s party.
“I asked her out to go on a date, but she turned me down,” Cain said. “She turned me down for an entire year.”
But Cain remained persistent, and finally she agreed, and in 1968, after both graduated, they got married.
They moved to Indiana where he attended Purdue University for a master’s degree in computer science. While at school, Cain also worked as a mathematician for the Department of the Navy.
He then worked for Coca Cola as a business analyst. Next he moved to the Pillsbury Company, where he became the company’s vice president.
Businessman turned politician
Cain decided to go into the restaurant business, where he worked from the bottom up at Burger King. He was in charge of 450 Burger Kings in a poor performing region, and in three years the region was back on top.
His last major business adventure was taking over as president and CEO of the almost bankrupt Godfather’s Pizza. In 14 months the company was again making a profit. He left the company in 1996.
Cain now hosts his own talk show, The Herman Cain Show, on Atlanta’s WSB station, where he takes a conservative stance on issues like national security, the economy and energy independence. He is also the author of four books on subjects ranging from self-empowerment to speculations on why Democrats have lost voters’ confidence and how Republicans will earn it.
“I never had an easy job,” Cain said. “They were all challenging.”
He said his favorite challenge was being the president of Godfather’s Pizza because he had a lot of independence and autonomy with the company.
In 2004 Cain ran for the U.S. Senate in Georgia but lost.
Although his business background may have influenced his decision to explore running for president, he said one major influencing factor occurred in 2006.
Cain had been diagnosed with stage-four liver and colon cancer. Cain said at the time his doctor told him “it’s as bad as it can get.”
“That was a mountain, it was the toughest time in my life,” Cain said.
His treatment consisted of five months filled with chemotherapy, surgery, and more chemotherapy. However, after many surgeries and cycles of therapy, he beat the cancer. Cain said he has been cancer free for almost five years.
The other factor Cain attributes his possible presidential run to is family. Cain has two children and three grandchildren. He said when he had his children, he focused on their future, but when his grandchildren were born, he focused on the nation and the world because he wouldn’t always be around.
“You want them to have the kind of life and the kind of opportunities that you’ve had,” Cain said.
So he said he has been using his radio show to his advantage, learning about a wide array of issues in order to answer callers’ questions. Cain said it has also helped him to articulate views and solutions to America’s problems.
He says his highest priority is national security, and that the fight against “Islamic Fascism,” as he called it, is a global affair. He believes federal spending is out of control, and that “major oil producing countries are not our friends.”
He says his three “guiding principles” are doing the right thing, empowerment and change for future generations.
Cain said he isn’t afraid to take on the presidency.
“When you have looked death squarely between the eyes, when you have looked bankruptcy squarely between the eyes, looking at the problems this country faces does not scare me,” he said.
(Emily Hoerner – email@example.com – is a student journalist at the University of Iowa).