Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain swept through South Florida last week with an early morning stop in Sweetwater. At the Claude and Mildred Pepper Center there, Cain was serenaded to strands of the enduring Cuban patriotic song Guantanamera and was applauded by senior citizens who said they admired el negro – the black man.
Soon after, Cain’s red campaign bus took him to Versailles Cuban Restaurant in Little Havana, where throngs of supporters from Cuba’s exile community had waited nearly two hours for his arrival.
“Hola, hola, hola, hola,” Cain greeted the cheering crowd. Following a brief speech outlining his 9-9-9 plan to improve the economy and the importance of having a strong leader in the White House, someone from the crowd shouted, “What about Cuba?”
Cain responded, “Freedom for Cuba now,” again to applause. “The United States needs to put more pressure on Fidel Castro.”
Cain’s full-day on his Nov. 16 South Florida tour included a stop also at a Wings Plus restaurant in Coral Springs, where he talked about not abandoning Israel and identifying the nation’s “enemies” in remarks targeted to Jewish voters in Broward County. He ended his visit with a rally at the Palm Beach Convention Center in West Palm Beach.
Each stop brought out scores of supporters, some carrying homemade signs with slogans ranging from “Cubans for Herman Cain” to “God bless Herman Cain” to “Obama — the biggest enemy of the USA.”
It was Cain’s first visit to Florida following his late October win of Florida’s nonbinding Republican presidential straw poll. Among supporters at each location was a scattering of African Americans, many of them black Republicans, who comprise about two percent of the state’s GOP population.
“He loves the working man,” said Maria Casimiro, a black Cuban who fled Cuba in 1978. After spending eight years in Venezuela, Casimiro, now 80, came to South Florida, where she has lived and worked as a seamstress in Hialeah.
“Cain speaks to me. He will take the United States out of the economic hole we are in today. I am a worker,” Casimiro said in Spanish. “I am very proud to say that I never asked this government for one thing. We Cuban people will work.”
Like many others in the Cuban community, Casimiro said she fears that the United States is becoming too socialistic under President Barack Obama and previous Democratic administrations.
“Fidel won’t let me back into Cuba,” Casimiro said. “But guess what? I don’t want to go.”
None of Cain’s black supporters seemed to mind that the only African-American contender in the GOP presidential race did not make stops in any of South Florida’s predominantly black cities or neighborhoods or brought messages targeted to the concerns and issues facing the black community.
“This guy speaks to everyone. It’s not about if you are black or white,” said Will Cooks, a Sunrise resident who attended the Coral Springs rally. “If he gets elected, then he has a responsibility to address those issues, which is something President Barack Obama has not done,” said Cooks, a lifelong Republican who served for three years in the Office of Ceremonial and Special Events in the Reagan White House.
LaShanda West, who has been a Republican since 1996, said she came out to the Little Havana rally “to see if Cain can win my vote.”
“He speaks to the common man, not just African Americans,” said West, who took a day off work as a seventh-grade civics teacher at Centennial Middle School in Cutler Bay in south Miami-Dade County.
It does not make sense for Cain to campaign in black neighborhoods during the election, Cooks said. Broward has about 8,000 registered black Republicans
“What good will it do for him to go to black neighborhoods that are 99 percent Democratic?” said Cooks, 50, who now works with the U.S. Postal Service’s Transportation Networks in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s not about party but what the candidate stands for.”
Tamarac resident Hakim Shahid, 45, said he supports Cain because he is a good business man and that's what the country needs to turn this economy around.
“Cain has a business background and we need help with the economy,” said Shahid, who attended the West Palm Beach rally, referring to the candidate’s background as a former pizza restaurant chain executive. “I like his answers on the issues. He knows what's going on. He has a strong business background. He's well rounded."
Cain, who turns 66 in December, is the former chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza. He served as president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association from 1996-99. Earlier this month, he was accused by four women of sexual harassment, charges that he has denied.
After running for president in 2000, Cain became a presidential GOP candidate in May and rose to the top spot in October, thanks, in part, to winning Florida’s straw poll. He has since slipped to about fourth in later polls.
Cain downplayed his lack of political experience, focusing, instead, on his business background.
“As a businessman, never having held an elected office, I learned like any successful businessman to make sure you're working on the right problem, make sure you have the right priority and surround yourself with good people," Cain told the West Palm Beach gathering.
Alex Smith, a recent graduate of St. Thomas University, said Cain is his preferred candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.
“We gave Obama a chance in 2008,” said Smith, 24, a Miami native who attended the Little Havana rally. “It’s time for some new ideas.”
At least one of the black attendees at Cain’s South Florida rallies, however, was not there to lend support.
Mangonia Park Councilwoman and former Palm Beach County Commissioner Addie Greene said she came to the Cain rally to protest his bid for
the Republican nomination because he is unqualified and lacks good character.
“I've never felt so emotional than about what is happening right now,” said Greene, a Democrat who was first elected to the council in 1986 and was appointed the town’s first black mayor five years later.
“I wish all — no matter if you’re African American, white, or whatever — would know that Cain is not qualified.”
Kyoto Walker in Palm Beach contributed to this report.
Photo: Herman Cain