It was 2003 and I was planning my Fourth Annual Regional Minority Small Business Conference. My previous events had attracted small, minority and women-owned business owners from Georgia and South Carolina with more than 100 people in attendance. We were expecting similar numbers that year.
But I hadn’t decided on a keynote speaker yet. I ran across some information about a successful and wealthy businessman who owned several Godfather’s Pizza restaurants. Even better, this was a black man who was a perfect match for the caliber of speakers I was accustomed to being a part of our conferences. After I researched a little more, I discovered he was running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican. Sen. Johnny Isakson was in office, and former Rep. Mac Collins also was vying for that seat.
I THOUGHT TO myself: Bingo. What a great opportunity to invite this man to come to Augusta and speak – first and foremost as a successful businessman who could be an inspiration to our small-business community. When I contacted his staff, they immediately returned my call. It took less than 24 hours for him to decide that yes, he would come and speak, and would not charge me a fee. The only thing he wanted to do was bring campaign material for distribution.
This man was Herman Cain, currently a Republican candidate for president of the United States. I had no idea how much this man would affect my life.
I’ve been a registered voter since I was 18. I’ve voted in every election. I was not politically astute by any means. I just knew the importance of voting.
Living overseas in my early formative years, I don’t recall having conversations with my parents about voting for one political party or another. I’ve always voted for who I thought was the best candidate – the candidate who values an ideology closest to mine. So the notion of having this black Republican come and speak in Augusta was not really a big deal to me. Remember, I asked him to be the keynote speaker at the luncheon for my regional minority small-business conference.
As it turned out, it was a big deal – in many ways. We doubled the number of attendees at that year’s conference. The ballroom at the former Sheraton Hotel was packed with curious people, black and white, to hear the luncheon speech of this man running for U.S. Senate who also was a successful, wealthy businessman. He rocked the house. He had people sitting on the edges of their seats. I watched people, who typically vote Democrat no matter what, sitting there nodding their heads in agreement with many of the things he talked about. He didn’t make a campaign speech. He spoke about business and common sense.
He did take a couple of minutes at the end of his speech to talk about key points of his campaign – his first run for political office, by the way. His campaign materials were strategically placed in a room next to the ballroom. After the luncheon, the beeline to that room to meet and greet and shake hands with Herman Cain was absolutely unbelievable. He remained almost two hours after his speech talking with people while the rest of the conference took place in another area of the hotel.
I WAS HOOKED. I made a decision to work on his campaign. I had never worked as hard with a committed drive as I did with him. I even put a bumper sticker on my vehicle, to the dismay of my former pastor who thought I was crazy for having a Republican sticker on my car. I attended events, canvassed neighborhoods, made phone calls and had a great time working in the 2004 race.
I watched how Herman worked his campaign. I learned a lot, but not with the intent of running for political office one day.
Herman and I became friends. He became my mentor – and it wasn’t because I agreed with everything that came out of his mouth. It was so much more. And frankly, I don’t know anyone I totally agree with.
Herman represented the professional and successful type of person I was striving to become. He is an author and motivational speaker. I am an author and inspirational speaker. He later became a radio talk-show host. I am a radio talk-show host.
So in 2005 when I decided to run for mayor of Augusta, I reached out to my friend Herman. He was encouraging, inspiring and candid about running a campaign. He didn’t sugarcoat his pearls of wisdom. He talked to me like a loving father would – someone who had “been there, done that.”
I don’t recall asking him for a donation in that campaign. I really felt the mentorship he provided was much more valuable than money. Then I ran for a Georgia state House seat in 2006, after the unsuccessful run for mayor. Again, I spoke to Herman. He was encouraging and gave me courage.
I remember sitting in the Augusta Marriott talking with him one day. I was able to connect with him on one of his few visits to Augusta. We sat in the restaurant for about an hour and he asked me pointed questions – questions he knew people on the campaign trail would ask me. He was preparing me, but I didn’t know it at the time. He was excited for me. I was excited. He loved my spirit and energy.
I met with him mentally prepared to ask for a contribution. And I did. He looked at me after I asked and didn’t say anything. He was waiting for me to say how much I was asking for. And I told him. He didn’t blink. He told me that I should not ever be hesitant about asking for a donation. He said campaigns take money – lots of it. He said that people will respond in a receptive way when you simply ask and be confident about it. It was wisdom I carried with me throughout the campaign. By the way, he wrote me a check that day.
JUST AS HERMAN Cain inspired me to run for public office, there have been dozens of people over the years who have told me that because I ran for mayor and the House seat, they too were inspired to run. And that is amazing to me. Politics is very personal and emotional.
The relationship I’ve built with Herman over the years has nothing to do with his political affiliation. If he wore the badge of another political party and the story I just shared was the same, he would have still been an inspiration for me to run for office.
The 2005 and 2006 races were two of the most exciting and impactful years in my life that I will cherish forever. I thank Herman Cain for that.
(The writer is a radio talk-show host, published author, life coach and mental-health advocate.)