Although he’s suddenly the most talked-about man in politics—at least for a day—Mark Block was quick to return a reporter’s request for comment.
“I’m standing outside smoking a cigarette. What else was I supposed to do?” he quips between puffs.
It’s a Marlboro Light just like that one that has put him in the political spotlight. Block is Herman Cain’s chief operating officer and chief of staff—equivalent to campaign manager on other campaigns—and in a web video released Monday night, addressed Cain’s supporters. “Tomorrow is one day closer to the White House … We’ve run a campaign like nobody’s ever seen, but then America’s never seen a candidate like Herman Cain,” Block said, looking straight into the camera. “We need you to get involved.” And then, without breaking his gaze, he takes a drag off a cigarette, transforming an ordinary video into a viral sensation.
That wasn’t the intent, Block says. There’s been feverish speculation about the video’s goals, including the idea that it might be a dog whistle to smokers and the tobacco industry, with whom Cain aligned himself as head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
Not so, Block insists. It was intended to be just like the web videos that David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, made for backers. Block figured it would help energize Cainiacs and that would be the end of it. “Don’t you wish we were that smart?” he says with a laugh. “It was just a message to our supporters. The guy that filmed it has been doing most of our stuff, and I was smoking a cigarette when I filmed it.”
And although Block says he doesn’t condone smoking, he’s been impressed by the positive reaction from tobacco users—including “at least a dozen emails asking if we can add a smoking car to the ‘Cain Train.’”
Though he’s been mostly behind the scenes as Cain has shot up in GOP presidential polls, Block shares both a facial-hair decision and a long history with the former pizza magnate. He is one of Cain’s longest-serving allies and—as Cain recounts in his book This Is Herman Cain!—has on at least one occasion been forced to stand in for his boss on the stump, no mean feat given Cain’s legendary speaking skills. They met about six years ago. Block was Wisconsin state director for the fledging Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers. As AFP sought to expand into other Great Lakes states, it sent Block and Cain out on tour, and the two men bonded during long car trips.
“As we traveled, we talked about him running for president,” Block recalls. “It's almost a blessing that he got cancer [in 2006], because he came off the campaign trail. In the meantime, AFP grew to 32 states, so instead of having contacts in just four states, we had built these ties into what became known as the Tea Party movement.”
Managing Cain’s improbable rise is the latest chapter in a long political life. Although he spent more than a decade working in the private sector, Block’s career in politics began when he was still in his teens. Like Cain, his father was a blue-collar voter with Democratic leanings, but unlike Cain—whose conservatism emerged in the mid-1990s—Block always identified with the right and confesses that he was “that geeky guy that was the freshman-, sophomore-, junior-, senior-class president.” In 1974, shortly after the voting age dropped from 21 to 18, he was elected to the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors—the first 18-year-old elected in the state, he says.
That career hit a bump in 1997, when Block was busted by the state board of elections. He was managing state Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox’s campaign and was accused of violating laws against coordinating with outside groups. Block ended up settling with the board, agreeing to pay $15,000 and stay out of politics for three years but avoiding an admission of guilt. To this day, he insists he was on solid ground, and the board of election’s general counsel at the time, George Dunst, says he agreed that Block was likely not in violation of the law. “The board and I went our own separate ways on that,” Dunst, since retired, says. “My own recommendation was that the case be dropped.”
Block supported himself during the ban by stocking shelves at Target before gradually putting his career back together. Though he remains upset by the episode, he’s in a more cheerful mood now. “We're having fun,” Block says. “I've worked for a lot of people in my life, and there's nobody that compares to Herman Cain—his enthusiasm, his good nature, his infectious laugh.”
It’s been a tough week for Cain: he’s been hammered over the details of his 9-9-9 plan, waffled repeatedly on abortion, and showed holes in his foreign-policy bona fides. Time’s Mark Benjamin found that Republicans in early-primary states either said that Cain didn’t have an organization in those states or else didn’t know who was involved—a bad sign so close to the first contest.
But during a short interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Block waved off naysayers. “I am grateful that our opponents feel that way, because they obviously don't understand that we are running a nontraditional campaign,” he said, saying Cain does have offices and state directors in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. “The grassroots support that we have built across this country is sustainable, and we’re continuing to meet all the metrics we set out.”
Despite Cain’s battering over the last week, a poll released Tuesday found Cain leading Mitt Romney by 4 points nationwide. It remains unclear whether Cain will be able to continue defying gravity and for how long, but if nothing else, Block’s YouTube stardom has provided a distraction from those troubles. A distraction—if not, perhaps, a breath of fresh air, exactly.