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Magazine / LOBBYING & LAW

From Pizza to K Street to President?

March 6, 1999

Editor's Note: This article appeared in National Journal in 1999.

Most presidential candidates spend a term or two as a Governor or a U.S. Senator before daring to launch a White House bid. Herman Cain wants to jump from his current job as the head of a Washington trade association straight to President of the United States.

This fall, Cain closes out his third and final term as president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. That position followed a rags-to-riches rise in the business world, highlighted by his role in the rescue of the floundering Godfather's Pizza chain.

Now Cain is poised to become only the second African- American to seek the GOP presidential nomination. After contemplating a run for years, Cain told National Journal, he will decide by November whether to enter the race. He has established the Omaha, Neb.-based Citizens for Cain Exploratory Committee.

Cain said that he did not take the restaurant association job to further his presidential ambitions. But, Cain added, he ''would rely very heavily on my friends in the restaurant industry'' if he decided to run. ''This job has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of people who are not only restaurateurs but citizens.''

To understate the case, the little-known Cain is a long shot, at best. Yet Cain's friends say that his grasp of policy issues and powerful oratory make him someone to watch. ''Herman is viewed in the business community and by Republicans on the Hill as a dynamo,'' said a lobbyist who has worked closely with the restaurant group. Cain has enjoyed one moment of fame. During a nationally televised town meeting in 1994, he confronted President Clinton about his health care plan with a stunner of a question: ''If you force me to do this, what will I tell all those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?''

Cain's biography is compelling. He grew up poor in Atlanta, where his mother worked as a domestic and his father held down three jobs--as a chauffeur, a janitor, and a barber. Cain worked his way through Morehouse College, a black university in Atlanta, by shining shoes, waxing cars, and clerking in the grocery store that his father eventually purchased. After a stint in the Navy, he worked at Coca-Cola Co., then joined the Pillsbury Co., where he became a vice president.

But at age 36, Cain decided to try to move up to top management by first moving down the corporate ladder. Seeing opportunity at a Pillsbury subsidiary, he enrolled at Burger King University, where future managers learn the fast-food business from the frying station up. Cain's career move worked. Pillsbury sent him to Philadelphia to boost sales of that area's Burger Kings. Cain succeeded to such a degree that Pillsbury tapped him to salvage its failing Godfather's Pizza subsidiary. After closing more than 300 unprofitable stores and turning the company around, Cain and an executive team bought it from Pillsbury for $50 million in 1988.

In the early 1990s, Cain served three one-year terms as an officer on the restaurant association's governing board. After turning down the group's presidency ''two or three times,'' he finally took the job, Cain said, after receiving assurances that the association would upgrade his post and bolster the group's lobbying team.

Cain was a rather unusual choice. Most association presidents are either veteran lobbyists or retired lawmakers who live in Washington. By contrast, Cain lives in Omaha, and spends only about a third of his time in the nation's capital. Mostly he's on the road, meeting local restaurant owners or delivering motivational speeches.

Cain said his proudest achievements were raising the restaurant association's membership from 33,000 companies to 37,000 (though he acknowledges that his initial goal was 45,000) and boosting the group's ranking from 24th to 15th in Fortune magazine's 1998 list of the most influential lobbying groups. Some critics contend that the association has moved too far to the right by attacking proposed minimum-wage increases and child labor statutes. But GOP lobbyists retort that the group's clout remains high on Capitol Hill.

Observers say Cain's charisma is his main strength. ''When I've attended industry meetings, people have turned to me and said, 'I'd support him in a second' '' for President, said Robin Lee Allen, senior editor of Nation's Restaurant News, a New York City-based trade publication.

If he runs, Cain says he will advocate market-oriented reforms of health care and Social Security, plus a ''simpler and fairer'' tax system. Each of these issues ranks high on the GOP's economic agenda. But unlike many in his party, Cain opposes school vouchers for private schools and backs efforts only to ''revisit,'' not eliminate, affirmative action. He declined to give his position on abortion rights.

In the primaries, Cain's moderate social stances could pose problems. But his personal wealth and links to the association's grass-roots money could help, a lobbyist said. Cain once showed up at a restaurant group board meeting, took the microphone, and challenged the 70-or-so board members to match his on-the-spot political donation. ''People responded,'' the lobbyist recalled, ''but the room was ashen-faced for a moment.''

The long odds against his presidential bid lead some analysts to maintain that Cain could leverage his free media coverage during the campaign into another office. Cain conceded that he would welcome a vice-presidential nomination or a Cabinet appointment if the GOP nominee wins in 2000. But for now, Cain emphasized that he's focusing only on a presidential bid.

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