Herman Cain, who rose from poverty in the segregated South to become chief executive of a successful pizza chain and then thrust himself into the national spotlight by seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, has died. He was 74.
His death was announced on Thursday on his website and on social media accounts. It did not say precisely when or where he died. Dan Calabrese, the website’s editor, attributed the death to the coronavirus, which President Trump, in a White House briefing, later referred to as the “China virus” and a “horrible plague” in affirming it as the cause.
Mr. Cain had been hospitalized in the Atlanta area this month after testing positive for the virus on June 29.
“We knew when he was first hospitalized with Covid-19 that this was going to be a rough fight,” Mr. Calabrese said in the announcement, adding, “Although he was basically pretty healthy in recent years, he was still in a high-risk group because of his history with cancer.” Mr. Cain had overcome colon and liver cancer in the mid-2000s.
Mr. Cain had attended President Trump’s indoor rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20 and had done “a lot of traveling” recently, Mr. Calabrese said.
“I don’t think there’s any way to trace this to the one specific contact that caused him to be infected,” he said at the time. “We’ll never know.”
In a video posted to his website after the Tulsa rally, Mr. Cain said he had worn a mask while he was in groups of people. But he also posted photographs of himself on social media that showed him without a mask and surrounded by people in the arena. Later, after Mr. Trump had scheduled an event at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Mr. Cain wrote approvingly on Twitter that masks would not be mandatory. “PEOPLE ARE FED UP!” he wrote.
On the stump, Mr. Cain called himself an ABC candidate — American Black Conservative. He brought an irreverent style to the 2011 campaign as he touted his by-the-bootstraps story in an appeal to Tea Party conservatives.
Mr. Cain said he had become a Republican after a Black man at a restaurant yelled out: “Black Republicans? There’s no such thing.”
“When I got back to Omaha,” where he was living at he time, “I registered as a Republican,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 2011. “It haunted me for three days that someone would dare tell me what party affiliation I should have.”
Mr. Cain’s 2011 presidential campaign was not his first foray into politics, but it catapulted him onto the national stage. His platform was best known for his 9-9-9 tax plan: a flat 9 percent individual income tax rate, a 9 percent corporate tax rate and a 9 percent national sales tax.
After his campaign ended, he continued to appear at political conferences and in the conservative news media. Once Mr. Trump took office, Mr. Cain’s name was floated periodically as a potential addition to the administration. President Trump considered naming him to a seat on the Federal Reserve Board last year, but several Republican senators indicated that they would vote against his confirmation, partly because of the sexual harassment accusations against him. He withdrew his name.
After the announcement of his death, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Cain had “embodied the American dream and represented the very best of the American spirit.”
Herman Cain was born on Dec. 13, 1945, in Memphis, to Lenora (Davis) and Luther Cain. His mother was a cleaning woman and domestic worker; his father, who grew up on a farm, worked as a janitor and a barber and as a chauffeur for Robert W. Woodruff, president of the Coca-Cola Company, which is based in Atlanta, where Herman was raised.
Herman graduated from historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He worked as a civilian ballistics analyst for the Navy and earned his master’s degree in computer science at Purdue University in 1971.
He married Gloria Etchison in 1968. She survives him, as do their children, Melanie and Vincent, and four grandchildren. Mr. Cain’s younger brother, Thurman L. Cain, died in 1999.
After finishing his education, Mr. Cain worked for Coca-Cola as a computer systems analyst. He then moved to Minneapolis to work for Pillsbury, and in 1978 he became an executive in the company’s restaurant and foods group.
At Pillsbury, Mr. Cain joined a training program at Burger King, a company subsidiary, in which potential executives were trained from the grill up, working as “Whopper floppers” and cleaning bathrooms. He rose to oversee 400 Burger King franchises in Philadelphia, and his success in improving their bottom line led Pillsbury to appoint him to run its Godfather’s Pizza chain.
He served as chairman and chief executive of the chain from 1986 to 1996 and lived in Omaha, where the company was headquartered.
Mr. Cain first gained wide attention in 1994, when he had the chance to spar with President Bill Clinton during a nationally televised town hall-style meeting on health care. Mr. Cain insisted that a broad Clinton health care plan would cost jobs. “If I’m forced to do this,” he asked, “what will I tell those people whose jobs I’m forced to eliminate?”
Their polite, if pointed, back and forth — Mr. Clinton pushed back with calculations that Mr. Cain declared “incorrect” — made the pizza executive a minor celebrity, particularly among conservatives.
One was Jack Kemp, a leading Republican member of Congress, who shared Mr. Cain’s free-market views. In 1996, when Bob Dole, the Republican nominee for president, chose Mr. Kemp as his running mate, Mr. Cain became an adviser to their campaign.
He left the pizza company in 1996 and became president of the National Restaurant Association, a once-sleepy trade group that he transformed into a lobbying powerhouse.
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At the time, anti-drunken-driving groups were trying to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.08 percent from 0.10 percent, a change that restaurant owners feared would hurt liquor sales. Mr. Cain called instead for stiffer penalties for drunken driving. That argument drew a pointed rebuke from Diane Riibe, a board member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“Mr. Cain and those he represents are in the business of selling alcohol,” Ms. Riibe wrote, “not saving lives.”
The restaurant association gave Mr. Cain an intimate view of the way Washington worked. And it helped him lay the groundwork for his first entry into electoral politics, a short-lived bid for the White House in 2000.
After that, he became co-chairman of the businessman Steve Forbes’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. And that same year, he moved back to Georgia to concentrate on his motivational speaking business and to write books espousing his business and political philosophies.
They included “Speak as a Leader: Develop the Better Speaker in You” (1999), “CEO of Self: You’re in Charge” (2001) and “They Think You’re Stupid: Why Democrats Lost Your Vote and What Republicans Must Do to Keep It” (2005).
He sought the Republican nomination for the Senate from Georgia in 2004 but lost badly in the primary to Johnny Isakson, who went on to win the general election.
Less than two years later, Mr. Cain received a diagnosis of late-stage colon cancer, which had spread to his liver. He recovered, and he later said he believed that his survival had shown that God had other plans for him. He credited God with persuading him to run for president after Barack Obama, a Democrat, took office in early 2009.
Mr. Cain published a memoir, “This Is Herman Cain!,” in 2011, just as he was saddling up again for a presidential run. Some critics said he was running for president to sell his book, and his travel schedule, which rarely took him to the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, resembled a book tour more than a serious campaign.
Still, he grabbed attention with his novel “9-9-9” plan. Thanks to the strength of his debate performances and a surprise victory in a Florida straw poll in September, Mr. Cain did well in early polling. He was essentially tied with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had consistently led most polls and who eventually became the Republican nominee.
Mr. Cain’s political downfall came as swiftly as his ascent, after Politico reported that the National Restaurant Association had paid settlements to two former employees who claimed Mr. Cain had sexually harassed them.
Other complaints piled up. He called them smears dreamed up by his opponents and categorically denied them.
Then came a complaint by a woman named Ginger White, who contended that she had had a 13-year extramarital affair with Mr. Cain that ended shortly before he announced his presidential bid. Ms. White produced phone records to prove that they had called or texted each other frequently, and Mr. Cain acknowledged giving her financial support. He said his wife of 43 years had been unaware of what he insisted was only a friendship.
With Ms. White’s revelation, some of Mr. Cain’s supporters and defenders began backing away, and he eventually dropped out.
The flurry of attention he received in his presidential run helped him land a job as a radio host in 2013. He also wrote columns for Newsmax and appeared as a commentator on Fox News.
During the 2016 election season, Mr. Trump, running as a businessman and a brash political outsider, drew early comparisons to Mr. Cain. At a time when many Republicans were skittish about Mr. Trump, Mr. Cain came to his defense, pushing back against accusations that Mr. Trump was a racist.
After Mr. Cain’s death was announced, Mr. Romney, now a senator from Utah, took to Twitter to write: “Saddened that Herman Cain — a formidable champion of business, politics and policy — has lost his battle with Covid. St. Peter will soon hear ‘999!’ Keep up the fight, my friend.”