Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain dies from complications of COVID-19 at 74

Cain tested positive for the disease shortly after appearing without a mask at Trump's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Published July 30, 2020 1:02PM (EDT)

Herman Cain (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Herman Cain (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Herman Cain died from complications of COVID-19, a spokesperson announced Thursday on the former Republican presidential candidate's website. He was 74 years old. 

Recently the co-chair of the "Black Voices for Trump" coalition, Cain is one of the most high-profile figures in the U.S. to have died from complications of the respiratory disease. He was hospitalized July 1 in the Atlanta area following a positive test for COVID-19 after posting a photo of himself without a mask at President Donald Trump's controversial June 20 campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.

"Herman Cain – our boss, our friend, like a father to so many of us – has passed away," Dan Calabrese said in a statement. "We all prayed so hard every day. We knew the time would come when the Lord would call him home, but we really liked having him here with us, and we held out hope he'd have a full recovery."

Calabrese said that Cain's inner circle knew "this was going to be a rough fight" from the start for the cancer survivor. Despite a series of optimistic social media statements, Cain "never quite seemed to get to the point where the doctors could advance him to the recovery phase."

The week before the rally, the Tulsa City-County Health Department issued a warning that the city had recorded its "highest daily increase of COVID-19 cases to date," with indoor gatherings the likely culprit.

"It is transmitting very efficiently," Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart cautioned the next day.  "I'm concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I'm also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe, as well."

Dart added his wish that the rally be postponed. Two weeks later, he told reporters that his agency believed that the rally "more than likely" contributed to a local spike in infections.

"The past two days, we've had almost 500 cases, and we know we had several large events a little over two weeks ago, which is about right," the doctor said. "So I guess you can connect the dots."

The afternoon of the rally, Trump campaign staffers physically removed thousands of social distancing stickers from the backs of seats in the Tulsa arena. Six Trump campaign workers tested positive for COVID-19 after helping set up the event, plus two more after the event. Two Secret Service agents also tested positive.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, a fundraising official on Trump's campaign and the girlfriend of the president's eldest son, also tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the Tulsa rally. The campaign held another rally with students in Phoenix, though it has since shifted to virtual "tele-rallies." 

Cain, grew up in Atlanta, entered the Navy after graduating from historically Black Morehouse college in 1967. In the '70s and '80s, Cain ascended the ranks of the chain restaurant world. In 1989, former president Ronald Reagan elevated him from his position as CEO of Godfather's Pizza to Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Omaha Branch.

He served on the board until retiring in 1996 to pursue politics. He worked in Washington as a conservative adviser and lobbyist before emerging in 2010 as a leading voice of the Tea Party movement in the wake of the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first Black president.

Cain's colorful, long-shot presidential candidacy in 2012 drew the most coverage of all Republican primary candidates. However, multiple women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment from his days running the National Restaurant Association in the '90s. Though Cain denied the accusations, he suspended his campaign.

The allegations played a role in thwarting his return to the national stage last year, when Trump was said to be mulling Cain's appointment to the Federal Reserve Board.

Cain had recently started hosting a show on Newsmax TV, and was "so pumped up about playing a role in the 2020 election campaign," according to his death announcement. 

"Alas, he only ever got to host one episode," the statement said.

Cain's survivors include his wife, Gloria Etchison, and two children, Melanie and Vincent.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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Coronavirus Covid-19 Donald Trump Herman Cain Obituary Republicans Tea Party Tulsa