ATLANTA — Just inside the gated golf course community that Herman Cain calls home sits a gigantic white stucco house with two towering palm trees, a fountain and a topiary tribute to its owner.
Evergreen shrubs are shaped to form a huge letter. Not C, for Cain. But W, for Webb, as in Rodney Webb, a former pro basketball player and motivational speaker who lives there.
Cain’s house is a far more modest brick rancher on the other end of the street, where the grandkids’ toys are often out front and the multimillionaire running for president has been known to answer the door with broom in hand.
As Cain has spent all week in Washington trying to clean up a political mess — one stemming from allegations of sexual harassment from his time at the National Restaurant Association — residents of this upscale enclave 20 miles south of Atlanta are rallying behind the neighbor they know as an unpretentious family man.
“We kind of think it’s funny,” said Brittany Glynn, a novelist who lives a few doors from Cain in an Italianate spread with two lion statues flanking the front door. “We kind of think, if this is as good as they’ve got, he’s doing pretty good. . . . Everyone in the neighborhood loves them and are big supporters.”
Support for Cain is not limited to his affluent neighbors — doctors and venture capitalists, entertainers and athletes — whose politics mesh neatly with his conservative agenda.
In the now-downtrodden northwest Atlanta neighborhood where he grew up, and in
the Democratic-leaning Baptist church where he has worshiped since age 10, there is a sense that Cain is a good man who, at the very least, deserves to survive the controversy. Some would like to see him make it all the way to the White House.
“My main issue is the economy and the jobs,” said Jimmy Smith, 55, an unemployed construction worker who lives a few doors away from Cain’s boyhood home on Albert Street in Collier Heights.
Developed in the 1950s for and by African Americans, the neighborhood was solidly middle class when Cain’s family moved into a six-room brick rancher the summer before eighth grade. At one point, at least four preachers lived on the block-long street. Since then, Collier Heights and many of its residents have fallen on hard times. On a sunny afternoon, Smith talked to a reporter through the white metal bars on his front door.
Smith said more than once that he’s a Democrat. But he also said Cain’s tough stance on illegal immigration — he has talked about erecting an electrified fence on the border with Mexico, though he later said he was joking — might help him get back to work.
“I heard Cain saying something about a lot of Mexicans,” Smith said. “You look around at construction. The Mexicans got all the jobs because they work all day. I know because I work with them. They don’t take breaks. They got fake Social Security cards, fake driver’s licenses.
“If Herman Cain can do something about that . . . ,” he said, his voice trailing off.
The harassment claims do not concern Smith in the least. “Everybody’s got some type of skeleton in their closet,” he said.
An 89-year-old man who watched Cain grow up from across the street said he won’t get his vote — but only because as a Jehovah’s Witness, he doesn’t participate in politics for religious reasons.
“I always thought he was kind of outstanding,” said Rogers Kendrick, a widower and retired Sears warehouse worker. “He didn’t make no display or anything, but he was just a natural at everything, conversation and whatnot. . . . If I talked with him a few minutes, he talked with common sense. I liked that.”
Kendrick has been tuning in to the Republican debates to watch his former neighbor. He admires Cain for being a self-made man. The son of a domestic worker and a chauffeur who turned heads by gliding up Albert Street in his employer’s black limousine, Cain made his fortune in the restaurant industry.
But his conservative politics are not universally cheered in his old neighborhood.
“He’s too bold for me,” said Sonnia Bland, 60, who grew up on the street with Cain and recalls him keeping mostly to himself. “Like he said about, ‘People are poor because of themselves’ — I didn’t like that. . . . If you could get a job, you could work hard. It’s hard. Kids gotta move back home and stuff.”
Bland works on the assembly line at Toto, a toilet maker. But her 40-year-old son moved back in with her after being laid off from his telemarketing job 18 months ago. He has found only temporary work as a forklift driver.
“I’m sorry, I can’t vote for him,” she said. “I’m with Barack all the ways.”
The same mix of sentiment about Cain — and the same tendency to refer to President Obama with the warm familiarity of his first name — can be found five miles east at Antioch Baptist Church North.
Cain is an associate minister at the 14,000-member black church that towers over an adjacent used-tire business. It is a place where Obama’s name not only gets woven into the sermon but also draws applause and amens from the congregation.
Hazel Lynch, 61, who interprets for the deaf during services, cannot say enough about Cain as a minister and a person.
“He preaches just like he’s talking to you,” she said. “He tells his story, how he overcame cancer.”
When Cain is not in the pulpit, Lynch said, he’s in the balcony with a grandchild on his lap. Or in the church basement sharing a chicken dinner after services. “He is a family man and he is a churchgoing man,” she said.
That is not to say Cain can count on her vote.
“We, as a church family, love Herman but I would say not many of us support his politics,” Lynch said. “I’m a Democrat. There’s no one or nobody who could persuade me to vote against Barack.”
Where Lynch parts ways with Cain is his desire to slash taxes and the social programs they fund.
“I have a mother in a nursing home; taxes help the elderly,” said Lynch, who trained pharmaceutical sales representatives before taking a recent buyout. “Taxes are what enable those who don’t have to have.”
But Cain’s philosophy of strict self-reliance has some takers in the Antioch pews. Kevin C. Haggins is an especially unlikely one. A Web site project manager, Haggins has been out of work for 18 months. He’s lost a rental property, his primary residence and his marriage in that period. He went bankrupt.
But Haggins, who recently remarried a longtime Antioch member, remains convinced that if he keeps trying to find work, he will. When Cain says the unemployed are responsible for their fate, Haggins takes that not as a put-down but as an empowering pep talk.
“Some of what he says it true,” Haggins said. “Are we gonna wait for the system to go and get us a job? . . . Some people have given up. . . . Some people are so used to being subsidized, it’s a type of slavery. They never develop skills.”
Cain’s politics, including a flat-tax plan expected to benefit the rich, have more predictable appeal among the well-off residents of his current neighborhood. Glynn, the novelist up the street, plans to throw a big fundraiser for Cain with her husband, Bill Glynn, a venture capitalist and author of “The United States of Bankruptcy.”
“Absolutely down-to-earth family,” Bill Glynn said. “You’d think he’d be more aloof. If you ran into him, you would never know he’s a presidential candidate.”
Cain surprised a man delivering flowers to his house by not only answering the front door but doing so with a broom in his hand, said David Sorrows, manager of Stockbridge Florist & Gifts. Cain periodically orders yellow roses for his wife from the shop.
“Oh, you’re cleaning today?” the delivery man said to Cain.
“Somebody has to,” Cain is said to have replied.
When Webb, the athlete-turned-motivational-speaker on the other end of the street, heard a neighbor was running for president, he never figured it was the guy from the rancher. Cain owns a handsome abode, with vaulted ceilings, golf course views and a value estimated at $479,000 in Henry County tax records. But it is modest by the standards of the community.
“I was surprised to know he was running for president just because his house is one of the cheapest houses in the neighborhood,” said Webb, who played pro basketball in Germany and whose own house is valued at $1.4 million. “I guess he’s very conservative when it comes to money.”