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Herman Cain greets supporters after announcing that he was suspending his campaign for president in December 2011. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This story is part of “Faces of the dead,” an ongoing series exploring the lives of Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus.

Drawing on his up-from-poverty story, his experience as a pizza-chain executive and even his resonant singing voice, Herman Cain launched an unlikely run for the presidency that briefly landed him at the top of the polls for the Republican nomination early in the 2012 campaign.

If nominated, he would have been the first Black GOP presidential nominee, but his candidacy soon ran aground amid charges of sexual harassment. By the end of 2011, Mr. Cain had dropped out of the race, and the GOP nomination ultimately went to Mitt Romney.

Four years later, Mr. Cain became an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. As co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, Mr. Cain was one of the president’s most prominent Black allies. He made one of his final public appearances on June 20 at a political rally for the president in Tulsa.

Less than two weeks later, Mr. Cain announced that he had contracted covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. He was not seen wearing a protective face covering at the rally.

He was hospitalized in Atlanta, where he died July 30 at age 74. Dan Calabrese, editor of Mr. Cain’s website, confirmed the death and that the cause was covid-19.

President Trump hailed him in a tweet as “a Powerful Voice of Freedom and all that is good.”

Mr. Cain had many incarnations — as a successful business executive, a tax-cutting conservative and a straight-talking political gadfly. He was a radio talk show host, a fixture on conservative news outlets and a charismatic figure in Republican circles. Glib, cheerful and endlessly quotable, he dubbed himself the “Hermanator,” after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action hero, the Terminator. He even trademarked the phrase “the Hermanator Experience.”

His campaign for the 2012 GOP nomination as a candidate who had never held office was mocked by political elites but caught fire for a time among certain voters who admired Mr. Cain’s status as a business-savvy outsider. In some ways, he served as a bellwether for Trump’s campaign in 2016.

“I’m not a professional politician,” Mr. Cain often said. “I’m a professional problem solver.”

Mr. Cain, the grandson of a potato farmer, worked for Coca-Cola as a business analyst in the 1970s before joining the Pillsbury Co., where he began his ascent as one of the few top-ranking Black executives in American business.

He spent four years in Philadelphia with the company’s Burger King division, learning the business from the lowest job to the top, reshaping the company’s worst-performing stores into some of its most profitable.

In 1986, Pillsbury bought a company that included the struggling Godfather’s pizza chain. Mr. Cain became chief executive of the Omaha-based Godfather’s, which he described as having “one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel.”

He closed unprofitable franchises, introduced companywide automation and emphasized customer service.

“Our No. 1 rule is the customer is always right,” he told Parade magazine in 1996. “Rule No. 2 is, if he is not right, go back to rule No. 1.”

Mr. Cain said he restored Godfather’s to profitability within 14 months, but when Pillsbury decided the turnaround wasn’t happening fast enough, he put together a group that bought the company for an estimated $40 million. He stayed on as CEO, even putting himself in some of the company’s commercials, before selling his ownership share in 2009.

“The more toppings a man has on his pizza, I believe the more manly he is,” Mr. Cain said in a 2011 interview — over pizza — with GQ magazine.

He began his political life as a Democrat but shifted his allegiance as Ronald Reagan gained prominence in the GOP in the 1980s.

“By that time, I had begun to climb the corporate ladder and make some significant money,” Mr. Cain told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004, when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. “The Republican principles of fewer taxes, less government, more individual responsibility were principles that I began to appreciate as I became more successful.”

He also told GQ that Democrats had “co-opted credit for having passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” African Americans, he said, “are brainwashed to not consider an alternative idea if they perceive you as a Republican.”

While working as the Godfather’s CEO, Mr. Cain began to expand his civic engagement. He served on corporate and academic boards, including as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo. He first stepped into the national political spotlight in 1994, when he challenged President Bill Clinton’s proposed health care plan, which would require employers to provide insurance to workers.

Speaking “on behalf of all of those business owners that are in a situation similar to mine,” Mr. Cain asked, “If I’m forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?”

When Clinton said small businesses would receive a tax credit, Mr. Cain replied, “Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate. In the competitive marketplace it simply doesn’t work that way.”

The encounter raised Mr. Cain’s profile, especially among conservatives and business leaders. In 1996, he stepped down from Godfather’s and moved to Washington as president and chief executive of the National Restaurant Association, which he led for three years. That year, he served as an adviser to Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole and his running mate, former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).

As head of the industry lobbying organization, he vastly increased its influence in Washington as he fought bans on cigarettes in restaurants and bars, a proposal to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit, and increases in the minimum wage, among other measures opposed by many restaurants.

Mr. Cain moved back to his hometown of Atlanta in 2000 and briefly ran for president as a Republican before becoming co-chairman of the campaign of publishing executive Steve Forbes, best known for his flat-tax proposals.

In 2004, Mr. Cain sought an open Senate seat in Georgia, only to lose the Republican primary to Johnny Isakson, who ultimately won the seat.

During these years, Mr. Cain wrote several books on business, self-development and politics, including “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).

In 2006, Mr. Cain received a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer, which had spread to his liver. He recovered after surgery and chemotherapy, noting that his doctor’s name was Lord, and one of his nurses was named Grace.

He considered it a providential sign that he was meant to run, one day, for president.

Always a dynamic speaker who thrived before an audience, Mr. Cain considered himself “not a motivational speaker — an inspirational speaker.”

He became the host of a nationwide radio talk show in 2008, just as conservative tea party opposition to President Barack Obama was coalescing. Early in 2011, he announced his presidential run with another memoir, “This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House.”

Dismissed as “entertainment” by conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer and the GOP establishment, Mr. Cain found early support and enthusiastic crowds. He sometimes sang hymns and “The Impossible Dream” from the podium.

When he stumbled over questions about foreign policy, he fell back on his signature “9-9-9” tax plan — a 9 percent corporate tax rate, 9 percent income tax, and 9 percent national sales tax.

Many economists said the idea was an unworkable fantasy, and some wags derided it as “Plan 9-9-9 From Outer Space,” after a notoriously bad 1950s science fiction movie.

Mr. Cain angered some Black voters when he declared that he had “left the Democrat plantation a long time ago,” referring to his earlier allegiance to the Democratic Party, and with his statement that he did not believe “racism in this country holds anybody back in a big way.”

“He’s the black man white people would prefer over Obama,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson told Newsweek at the time, “and he’s the black man that is more like them and who thinks like them. He makes them feel they aren’t racist because they support him at this level and not Obama.”

In October 2011, Mr. Cain was leading the polls for the Republican nomination, but his campaign began to crumble under greater scrutiny, particularly after four women charged him with sexual harassment when he was leading the National Restaurant Association. A fifth woman said Mr. Cain ended a long-term extramarital affair with her shortly before he announced his candidacy. He denied the charges, but his poll numbers began to fall, and in December he dropped out of the race.

Herman Cain was born Dec. 13, 1945, in Memphis. He moved as a child with his family to Atlanta.

His mother was a domestic worker, and his father held three jobs, as a barber, a janitor and a chauffeur for Coca-Cola executive Robert W. Woodruff. Mr. Cain’s father persuaded Woodruff to pay him, in part, with Coca-Cola stock, which afforded the family a degree of financial security.

While growing up in segregated Atlanta, Mr. Cain and his younger brother once sneaked a drink from a whites-only water fountain. He was aware of discrimination and the civil rights movement, but he was not an activist.

“The rules of the house were simple and direct,” he told the Atlantic. “Don’t get into trouble. Don’t talk back to your mother. Go to church. Study hard and finish school.”

He and his brother were the first in their family to finish college. Mr. Cain received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Atlanta’s Morehouse College in 1967. At the historically Black school, he honed his singing skills in the glee club and was elected president of the prestigious Glee Club Quartet.

While working as a Navy Department mathematician, Mr. Cain received a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, the former Gloria Etchison, and two children, Melanie Gallo and Vincent Cain, all of Atlanta; and four grandchildren.

In later years, Mr. Cain remained visible as a commentator and supporter of Trump. He was slated to begin a new talk show on the Newsmax network this summer.

In 2019, Trump considered naming Mr. Cain to the Federal Reserve Board, but after lawmakers from both parties questioned his qualifications, he withdrew his name from consideration.

He was comfortable with his stance as an ABC — American Black Conservative. He was not bothered when others suggested that, as a Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, he should follow a more liberal political path.

“Do you want to know why?” he told GQ in 2011. “Because this is America. And here you can think for yourself. And I’ve been thinking for myself a long time.”

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