Q&A: Tea Partying Former CEO Herman Cain

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Sitting in his Atlanta office over looking a golf course, Herman Cain contemplates what life could have been. “My plan was to be on cruise control at this particular point in my life,” the 65-year-old former Godfather’s Pizza CEO says. Cain retired from the corporate world 15 years ago. Since, he’s served on a few boards – Hallmark’s, Whirlpool’s and tractor-maker AGCO’s – but most of his time since then has been spent as a talk radio host, fielding calls on what he believes to be the root of most evil: government overreach.

Cain’s is a remarkable and unconventional tale for a potential Republican presidential candidate, even if he is a long-shot. Herman and his brother Thurman (they hated the rhyming names) grew up in a poor, black Atlanta neighborhood and became the first in their family to go to college. The former went to Morehouse, a historically black college, and got a degree in mathematics. He went on to pursue a masters degree from Purdue University while working as a mathematician for the Navy. After graduation, he entered the corporate world and worked his way up the ladder at Coca Cola, Pillsbury and then Burger King. He eventually became CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, taking it from the brink of bankruptcy back to profitability in 14 months.  Cain left Godfather’s in 1996 to head the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies for restaurant interests in Washington.

After beating Stage IV colon cancer five years ago, Cain says he found new purpose in the political work he’d begun on the radio. With business savvy and a booming broadcaster’s voice, he has electrified the Tea Party and on Jan. 12, Cain announced a presidential exploratory committee. “Most of the others in the field have honorifics in front of their name: former senator, former governor, former speaker,” he notes. “They just call me Mr. Cain when I go out to the hinterlands. People like that I’ve never held public office because of my business, problem-solving background.”

It’s not just the “hinterlands.” In December, Cain won RedState.com’s straw poll for the top-pick of the 2012 crop, edging out former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. And Hot Air declared he “stole the show” at this year’s CPAC, the annual gathering of conservative activists. His inexperience on the national stage has gotten him into some trouble — he said, if elected, he’d refuse to appoint Muslims to government posts because they might support Sharia law. (He later clarified that he “would not hire terrorists or Jihadists.”) — but he’s brash and he’s new. And that may be exactly what the Tea Party is looking for .

Cain addressed an Americans for Tax Reform luncheon Wednesday in D.C. Earlier in the week, TIME talked to Cain about his possible role in the looming GOP presidential primary. A lightly edited transcript follows:

Why do you want to be President?

No. 1, I believe that the nation is on the wrong track. No. 2, although there’s a lot of good candidates out there, potentially, I felt compelled to take a look at running myself because of the issues that I see and understand because of my business-solving background that might bring some common sense solutions to the problems I might face.

What would be your first act as President?

First, I’d get my hands around national security. Secondly, introduce some direct stimulus ideas. This economy is not recovering. In fact, it’s probably getting weaker. Consumers have no place to get traditional costs for gas – that’s going to further slow down any potential growth in the economy that we were hoping for. The first two priorities are national security, and direct stimulus: lowering the top corporate tax rate, lowering repatriation tax to zero, lowering the corporate gains rate. All those would directly stimulate the economy. Not spending a trillion dollars on more government spending. Some of us knew that wouldn’t work from the beginning.

Some have said the Tea Party movement is racist – do you think it is?

Bull feathers. Feathers is code for another word that is not politically correct. I was in Las Vegas in 2009. The local Tea Party there, they invited me to speak. They were expecting 600 people. They got 2,600. I have probably spoken at over 50 Tea Party rallies in the last two years. I lost count. Saying the Tea Party movement is racist is about as far from the truth as the Sun is away from the Earth. They want to try to stifle its growth. If the Tea Party were racist, why would they invite an American black man, Herman Cain, to speak? It is a name-calling tactic used by those who would like to see the Tea Party fail.

What advice would you give to Republicans to help them reach out to blacks?

Give them the right information… Unfortunately many of them haven’t been exposed to the truth. I would often have people call and voluntarily identify themselves as African-American and say that they have been misinformed for many years. The information I have been sharing with them is to open their eyes, gives them the truth about how some of these programs are not sustainable in the long run.

This is a race full of millionaires – Romney, Huntsman, you. In an election where Obama could spend as much as $1 billion, will you use your own money? And if not, how can you compete?

Yes, I will put some of my own money in. But it will not be in the millions, because I don’t have millions to put in. If the only criteria for winning is how much money you raise, that’s buying the presidency. I‘ve been getting a great response from people online. A lot of races won in 2008 and 2010, the person with the most money didn’t necessarily win. The determining factor is going to be how many people u can get excited on the ground. When we formally announced exploratory committee the number of people who signed up exceeded our expectations. People from all 50 states signed up to donate time as volunteers. We had over 100,000 people sign up.

Is there room for a third-party Tea Party candidate in the general election if Republicans pick someone more pragmatic that ideological?

No. I think that would be absolutely the wrong way to go. A Tea Party candidate is someone who believes in fiscal responsibility, enforcing the constitution and allowing the free market system to create jobs and grow the economy. A Tea Party candidate can certainly run on a Republican ticket, but can’t run on a Democratic ticket because they’re going the opposite way. I don’t believe the Tea Party movement is going in that direction. I just don’t see it happening.

Should the debt ceiling be raised?

It shouldn’t be raised. Because they have no safeguards not to raise it again. Until there are some safeguards, it shouldn’t be raised. The other side says old people, children and puppy dogs would be affected. That is just crap. You can make sure that Social Security checks go out and make sure military families get their pay and that’s really all that matters. No, it should not be raised.

Any agencies or constitutional amendments you’d abolish?

As for agencies, I don’t know yet. There are some that I would take a look at… One of my first tasks is to go program by program to figure out what programs need to be abolished. I don’t have a whole agency at this point that I would abolish… [On amendments] I would repeal the 16th Amendment [which allowed for direction taxation].