The board members of the National Restaurant Association knew they wanted Herman Cain to run their organization in 1996. He was a hero in the restaurant world, so they offered him perks, including a luxury D.C. apartment and weekly first-class tickets from Washington to Omaha, where his wife was living.

Once settled into the powerful trade association’s 17th Street NW offices, however, Cain developed a different reputation. Colleagues recall that he spent the organization’s money liberally, commissioning new information technology and phone systems and spending nearly double what had been budgeted to renovate an auditorium.

“He did not have the temperament to be an association executive,” said William Fisher, Cain’s predecessor at the organization. “He did not like to have to go to a board of directors to get authorization to do certain things. He did not like criticism from the state associations.”

It was during this period that Cain established himself as a Washington figure, meeting with the city’s power brokers and becoming a regular presence in the halls of Congress. It is also a time that has suddenly received new scrutiny in the wake of allegations that he sexually harassed three female colleagues at the organization, a controversy that threatens his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

His problems at the restaurant association mirror those that have plagued his campaign. A talented orator, Cain has inspired a level of enthusiasm in conservative voters that his rivals can only envy. But he has struggled to maintain an organized campaign, with staff members in key states quitting out of frustration.

Boosting group’s visibility

More than a dozen former colleagues and board members consulted for this article said any allegations of sexual misconduct were not known throughout the organization. Outside the association, Cain was becoming known for building it into a much more visible Washington presence. Internally, he was outgoing and charming and enjoyed socializing, not unusual for someone in the hospitality industry.

Cain was chummy with employees and board members. He took young staff members out to dinner and built a social life in Washington.

One weekend, after a long week of association meetings, he joined Oshel B. Craigo, owner of Better Foods in West Virginia, poolside for an evening of sunbathing. The two men laid back and talked.

“He is very outgoing, friendly, likable, always talking to people,” Craigo said. “He’s just a very friendly guy. It is a hospitality organization, so everyone is friendly and outgoing. That is the nature of the business. He was likewise as the executive director.”

Before he was courted by the restaurant association, Cain had developed a reputation as a passionate pro-business advocate. As chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza and president of the restaurant association’s board of directors, Cain drew national attention when he challenged President Bill Clinton during a televised town hall meeting on Clinton’s health-care plan. He stepped forward and questioned the president’s calculations about how much it would cost businesses to provide health insurance to their employees.

Cain became an instant celebrity for the restaurant industry — and for business-oriented conservative politicians such as Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp and former House majority leader Richard K. Armey, who brought him to Washington frequently to speak to members of Congress.

Among those who ushered him around the capital was Virginia Thomas, then an aide to Armey and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

After Cain’s brush with fame, he traveled the country mobilizing restaurant owners and operators to oppose what the industry viewed as the health-care measure’s onerous government regulations, with a tour he dubbed “one voice.”

In 1994 and ’95, while Cain headed the association’s board, he traveled often with Fisher, his predecessor as chief executive, to food-service conferences and state conventions. Cain was often put out front at these gatherings to talk about labor and tax issues.

Fisher said he saw nothing “tawdry” in Cain’s behavior, “but I know Herman has a big ego.”

Management questions

In 1996, the National Restaurant Association was determined to bring Cain on staff, said W.W. “Biff” Naylor, owner of a chain of California diners and at the time the association’s incoming board chairman. The politically influential group needed an active front man who was at ease in the spotlight and comfortable speaking to the media and had a persuasive voice on Capitol Hill.

Cain initially declined. “Herman said it was not on his career path,” Naylor recalled. “We told [the recruiter], ‘Make him an offer he can’t refuse.’ ”

The restaurant association’s search committee worked to persuade Cain and sweetened the pot, giving him a compensation package that was significantly higher than those offered to previous chief executives and agreed to meet certain demands from Cain, including the apartment and the first-class plane tickets.

During his tenure, the association was a tough opponent of minimum-wage increases and mandatory health-care benefits. He lobbied against anti-smoking regulations and took on a coalition of traffic-safety groups advocating a lowering of the blood-alcohol limit used to define drunken driving.

Some colleagues say he had difficulty with his new job, which involved running an organization of more than 100 people in Washington and Chicago. The position required balancing the needs of staffers, dozens of board members and state-level restaurant associations.

When he left in 1999, his successor took a different approach, reining in spending, cutting staff by 10 percent and increasing revenue by bumping up the number of dues-paying members. He also tried to soften the image of an organization that had begun to be viewed as hard-hearted because of its efforts opposing minimum-wage increases and expanding health care.

“Heading a staff is very different from being in a nationally recognized role as the head of the industry,” said one former colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think that often got confused.”

Staff writers Aaron C. Davis, Amy Gardner and James V. Grimaldi and news researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.