"We all prayed so hard every day .... and we held out hope he’d have a full recovery," a friend said Thursday

By Sean Neumann and Adam Carlson
Updated July 30, 2020 03:00 PM
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Herman Cain, the TV and radio host, former business executive and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, has died about a month after he became sick with the novel coronavirus disease, his team announced on Thursday morning. He was 74.

"We’re heartbroken, and the world is poorer: Herman Cain has gone to be with the Lord," reads an update posted to his official website.

President Donald Trump confirmed later Thursday that Cain died of coronavirus complications.

"We knew when he was first hospitalized with COVID-19 that this was going to be a rough fight," Cain's friend Dan Calabrese wrote on Cain's website on Thursday. "He had trouble breathing and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. We all prayed that the initial meds they gave him would get his breathing back to normal, but it became clear pretty quickly that he was in for a battle."

"We all prayed so hard every day," Calabrese continued. "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."

Speaking with PEOPLE, Calabrese says he learned of Cain's death early Thursday and that Cain's family was with him when he died.

Cain had spent most of July getting treated for COVID-19 in an Atlanta-area hospital. His team said early this month that he tested positive on June 29.

He began showing symptoms on July 1, according to his staff, and he was then hospitalized. Earlier this week, Cain’s representatives said he was still in the hospital and was “being treated with oxygen for his lungs.”

"As recently as a week ago, it seemed pretty hopeful. ... We did feel pretty encouraged, because it was like if anyone is going to pull through it’s gonna be him," Calabrese says.

But Cain's condition appeared to take a sharp turn in more recent days: "It didn’t seem like it was getting better like he should have."

Cain is survived by his wife, Gloria, children Vincent and Melanie and their three grandchildren. Calabrese says Cain's family was with him when he died.

"They need our love, our support and our prayers," Calabrese wrote Thursday. "Nothing I talked about above meant as much to him as these wonderful people did, and because he loved them so much, we will continue to feel his impact on the world through them."

From left: Gloria and Herman Cain in 2011
Scott Olson/Getty

Cain’s team said in early July that there was “no way of knowing for sure how or where Mr. Cain contracted the coronavirus."

However, he had attended President Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma — a large gathering that health officials believe is linked to subsequent infections. (Many attendees, including Cain, were seen without masks or social distancing.)

"I realize people will speculate about the Tulsa rally, but Herman did a lot of traveling the past week," Calabrese wrote on his website earlier in July. "I don’t think there’s any way to trace this to the one specific contact that caused him to be infected. We’ll never know."

Calabrese tells PEOPLE that, given Cain's travels that week, he personally thinks Cain became infected while on a plane.

He also pushed back on the idea that Cain didn't take the coronavirus seriously: While he wrote a tweet in June that people who wouldn't wear masks were "FED UP” (that post has since been deleted), he spoke approvingly of masks back in April.

"Where he got it, it’s kind of neither here nor there, but I wish people would stop trying to turn it into a political angle in that way," Calabrese says, adding, "I know he did wear a mask and I know he encouraged people on his show to wear a mask."

Herman Cain in 2011
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Herman Cain in November 2019
MediaPunch/Shutterstock

Looking Back at His Life, Career and Controversies

Cain is known for his campaign's rapid rise and fall during the 2012 presidential race, when he ran for the Republican Party’s nomination in the hope of facing incumbent President Barack Obama.

The New York Times wrote in 2011 that "with his golden voice and folksy manner, Mr. Cain appealed to voters who sought an anti-establishment candidate." Cain showcased his conservative politics and colloquial demeanor during a string of debate performances in 2011 and built a sloganeering policy platform around his "9-9-9" tax plan, for example.

Bill Armistead, who was chair of Alabama's Republican Party at the time, recalls Cain as "a person that you could relate to so well. He just had an amazing charismatic personality, but it was a real kind of thing."

"Some politicians — and I've known quite a few — have a personality that can project to come across the way they think they need to come across, but Herman Cain was the real deal," Armistead tells PEOPLE. "He came across exactly the way he was and he just resonated with people. I am just devastated that he's passed away."

Up against the GOP's political mainstays, Cain shocked many analysts when he began to appear near the top of primary polls with party familiars like former Rep. Newt Gingrich and current Sen. Mitt Romney, who eventually won the party’s nomination.

"His American Dream story is one for the history books," former aide Ellen Carmichael wrote on Twitter.

"Working for Herman had a lot of challenges - working for any campaign does. But, he was a really good person. He really, really was," she wrote. "And despite the challenges he faced in his life, he deeply loved his country with his whole heart. Please believe that."

Cain’s presidential hopes fell apart after multiple women said he had sexual harassed them in the past, alongside a string of gaffes he made underlining the criticism that he would be a bad match for the Oval Office. (Cain denied the accusations; though two women who had previously accused him were reportedly given settlements.)

Herman Cain at a tax reform event in April 2012
Win McNamee/Getty

He officially ended his campaign in December 2011 after another woman, Ginger White, said she had recently ended a 13-year affair with the rising presidential candidate, which he also denied — insisting it was nothing more than what he described as a "friendship," according to Politico.

Cain told the outlet he had given White money for "month-to-month bills and expenses" and that his wife, Gloria, did not know about their relationship.

"My wife now knows," Cain told Politico. "My wife and I have talked about it and I have explained it to her. My wife understands that I'm a soft-hearted giving person."

Gloria, who married Cain in 1968, stood with him on stage as he announced the end of his campaign that December and the couple remained married.

Cain said at the time that he was suspending his 2012 campaign "because of the continued distractions, the continued hurt caused on me and my family, not because we are not fighters." He added: "Not because I’m not a fighter."

Herman Cain in 2012
Carlos Osorio/AP/Shutterstock
Herman Cain in December 2011, announcing he was leaving the 2012 presidential race
Chris Rank/Corbis via Getty

His whirlwind up-and-down political career was decades in the making.

An eventual millionaire, Cain grew up poor in Atlanta and celebrated a long career in the restaurant industry after working as a mathematician in ballistics with the Navy. After earning a job as a business analyst at Pillsbury, Cain gradually rose up the ranks of the food business, gaining a reputation within the company for a successful run managing hundreds of Burger King restaurants near Philadelphia.

Cain was promoted to chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, another Pillsbury subsidiary, and is credited with turning around the fading chain during the mid-to-late 1980s. The son of a janitor and a home cleaner, Cain bought the pizza company from Pillsbury with a group of investors in 1988.

The restaurant executive began to flirt with politics in the 1990s, gaining brief national media attention for an exchange he had with President Bill Clinton over the Democratic lawmaker’s health care proposals during a town hall meeting in Kansas City.

Still the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Cain engaged in what NPR later described as a “respectful and lively” debate with the president over his approach to healthcare. The outlet reported in a 2011 that “many conservatives believe the Man from mozzarella got the better of the Man from Hope.”

Cain briefly served as a senior adviser for Republican candidate Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. That same year, he became the CEO of the National Restaurant Association and moved to Washington, D.C., where The Washington Post reports he became a “regular presence in the halls of Congress.”

“He is very outgoing, friendly, likable, always talking to people,” Better Foods owner Oshel B. Craigo told the Post about Cain. “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.”

However, the Post also reported in 2011 that Cain’s “problems at the restaurant association mirror those that have plagued his campaign,” as some colleagues accused the eventual presidential candidate of lavish spending. Three of the four women who later accused Cain of sexual misconduct in 2011 said he had harassed them while he was head of the association, which lobbied for the interests of restaurant businesses on Capitol Hill.

Cain mounted a short-lived challenge for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and ran a similarly unsuccessful 2004 Senate campaign. He survived a bout with colon cancer in 2006 and became the host of the self-titled Herman Cain Show on Atlanta radio from 2008, where he remained until his presidential bid took off in the spring of 2011.

Though Cain enjoyed a time at the top of the primary polls, his campaign unraveled under scrutiny from those who said — in a pre-Trump era — that a businessman like him was poorly equipped to be commander-in-chief, especially after then-infamous moments like a fumbled answer on Libya.

"I'm ready for the gotcha questions," he said in 2011 while joking about Uzbekistan, in another campaign controversy, before pivoting to focus on job creation, which he said was his focus.

"It’s not that Herman didn’t understand the rules of politics, it’s just that he didn’t care," his friend Calabrese says now. "... He knew those rules, he just didn’t want to follow them. And that was one of the reasons we loved him."

Herman Cain
Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

After his unsuccessful run at the White House, Cain continued to make appearances on Fox News and other conservative media shows throughout the remainder of his life, hosting a program on WSB radio until he got sick with COVID-19.

According to his team he had also "just started hosting a new show" on the cable network NewsmaxTV and one episode had aired just days before Cain's diagnosis.

Calabrese says the last time they spoke was earlier this summer, after Cain had finalized his deal with Newsmax: "He was 74 years old and he sounded like a 24 year old getting his first break in TV, he was that excited. But also he had a plan for what he wanted to do with it."

He was never elected to office despite multiple attempts and later called for the formation of a third major political party, embracing the Tea Party’s platform — which also embraced Trump.

"To all of those people who say that the Tea Party is a racist organization, eat your words," The Atlantic reported Cain had said, as his presidential campaign gained initial momentum.

Cain later became a vocal supporter of Trump and was assisting with his re-election campaign's group for black supporters.

Herman Cain in October 2011
William B. Plowman/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty
Herman Cain in November 2011
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty

In 2019, the president said he wanted to appoint Cain, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in Missouri, to an open seat on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

But the Associated Press reported that four Republican senators — including Romney, Cain’s 2012 opponent — said they’d vote against his potential appointment, which was eventually withdrawn.

“My friend Herman Cain, a Powerful Voice of Freedom and all that is good, passed away this morning. Herman had an incredible career and was adored by everyone that ever met him,” Trump tweeted Thursday, “especially me.”

Cain's friend Calabrese says: "This is such a partisan age and people get defined by where they stood on the political spectrum and I’m sure a lot of people will define Herman in that way. That was so much not who he was. His favorite thing to do was to help people see a way forward in their lives."

• With reporting by DIANE HERBST

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