By Robert C. Jones Jr.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 10, 2016)—Matthew Deblinger, president of the University of Miami School of Law’s Student Bar Association, walked into Thursday’s CNN Republican presidential debate hoping to witness an intellectually driven discussion about improving the nation.
“Our country has serious issues that need to be resolved under the next administration, from a big national debt to an imminent environmental crisis,” said Deblinger. “But these global concerns have gotten lost in the theatrics of this year’s primaries.”
Deblinger, who is on track to graduate from Miami Law in May and plans to pursue a career in politics, was one of about 60 UM students who attended the GOP debate inside the BankUnited Center, where candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and UM alumnus Marco Rubio faced off just five days ahead of next week’s critical Florida primary.
For Monica Bustinza, president of UM’s Get Out the Vote initiative, the event provided her with “a better understanding of how debates work internally and the efforts that go into making them possible.”
As president of UM’s Get Out the Vote initiative, Bustinza conducts voter registration drives on the UM campus twice a week, educating students about the voting process and providing them with nonpartisan information on political candidates. Having watched every debate this election season from home, she said it was a “privilege” to finally witness a live debate, especially one that was held before she would cast her ballot next Tuesday.
Medical student Hong-Uyen Hua, executive president of the Miller School of Medicine’s Student Government, said she felt “humbled” and “lucky” to attend the debate. “With Florida’s primary around the corner, I hope to use this opportunity to learn more about our presidential candidates and to be an informed voter,” she said.
During the two-hour debate, moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper, candidates sparred over issues ranging from the economy and immigration to education reform and social security.
“An opportunity to see democracy in action first-hand” is how Casey Klofstad, associate professor of political science, described the debate’s impact on students.
“To give a group of our students access to a high-profile event such as this is exactly what we should do as an institution of higher learning,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Whitely. “Our students will become the next generation of leaders, and the debate gives them the unique opportunity to experience the process of political discourse up close and personal.”
University of Miami President Julio Frenk and Board of Trustees Chair Stuart Miller were among those in attendance. “Democracy is more than an ideal—it is a rigorous and participatory exercise of our rights and duties,” Frenk said to the audience during the debate’s opening portion that was not televised by CNN. “There are still many months to go before November 1, and I have no doubt that our state and our city will play a crucial role by making sure that voices are heard and votes counted.”
For the University itself, the debate was another feather in its cap of notable and newsworthy events that have been held on the Coral Gables campus over the years—from a presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry to a visit by the Dalai Lama, from a campaign rally by Barack Obama to a talk by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
And just as they did for those occasions, UM departments and divisions played key roles in assisting and supporting the outside organizations that staged Thursday’s debate.
UM’s Information Technology department, for example, tackled one of the biggest jobs, providing voice data, Ethernet, wireless, and fiber-optic services that allowed CNN to cover and broadcast the debate to millions of viewers.
“We started preparing two weeks out and really ramped up our efforts last week,” said Cesar Ferreiro, director of IT, noting that CNN, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Republican National Committee all praised his team’s efforts. “We’ve done this for many important events, including debates, so having that kind of on-the-ground experience certainly didn’t hurt.”
Working closely with Coral Gables Police, the UM Police Department took the lead in planning and executing a security plan for the entire debate week. “It was a tremendous team effort,” said UMPD Chief of Police David Rivero. “After word got out that we’d be hosting the debate, agencies from across the county started calling to find out how they could assist us. The UM name attracts people who want to be associated with us.”
In all, more than 100 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies were involved. Miami Dade Police sent bomb-sniffing dogs, City of Miami Police sent bomb technicians and mobile command units, and the FBI and Secret Service also played support roles.
The Herbert Wellness Center’s entire second-floor main gym was transformed into a media filing center and spin room, where reporters spoke with debate participants and their representatives.
“It looks like a Hollywood movie set,” said Wellness Center Executive Director Scott Levin, describing the spacious gym’s conversion—a process that included setting up a giant high-definition TV screen and multiple smaller monitors, setting up video boards around the room that offered statistics on the voting patterns of different groups, and installing workstations to accommodate 500 members of the media.
The Herbert Wellness Center, which also served as the media filing and spin room when UM hosted the 2004 presidential debate, remained open on the days leading up to the GOP debate, closing only on Thursday. “We tried to minimize the impact on our members,” said Levin. “It’s been exciting for us to be part of this and have such an active role. Millions of people were watching. How do you put a value on that?”
The Student Center Complex was a hub of activity on debate day, as CNN en Español, the network’s 24-hour Spanish-language television and radio news channel, broadcasted from the newly renovated Storm Surge space in the Whitten University Center. Meanwhile, the UM College Republicans staged a debate watch party in the Shalala Student Center’s third-floor ballroom, and the Republican Party of Florida hosted a private event in the center.
On the University of Miami’s Foote Green Thursday morning, it was a New Day, and CNN’s Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo greeted a nation rising from a night’s sleep with an address familiar to all ’Canes: “Welcome to the U,” said Cuomo, as he and his co-host flashed the ever-popular U sign to open the network’s morning news show.
Indeed, for most of the week, the massive green space in front of the institution’s Richter Library, dominated the spotlight, as CNN aired its popular lineup of news shows from that location—the iconic U statue visible in the background for many on-air shots. Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett, and Anderson Cooper were among the other CNN anchors on campus.
The debate came a day after Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off at Miami Dade College.