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The Debate's Power Couple

Cam and Isabelle Johnson's hefty to-do lists for the Presidential Debate made their fall feel like "Groundhog Day."

Campus News  |  Nov 9, 2016  |  By Diane Russell
Isabelle and Cam Johnson

Isabelle and Cam Johnson (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

While many UNLV employees put in exceptionally long hours in the days and weeks leading up to Oct. 19, most aren’t married to someone with an equally grueling schedule.

But for Isabelle and Cam Johnson, both 15-year UNLV employees, the months of September and October meant spending workdays — and more than a few evenings — preparing for the same event.

So, cups of coffee in hand, this UNLV couple abandoned their carpooling ritual to better accommodate last-minute changes to work schedules and bore down on the lengthy list of must-dos needed to pull off a smoothly run Presidential Debate. 

When All Predictions Were Off

Cam, ’01 BS Management Information Systems, is operations center manager for the office of information technology (OIT). He was responsible for figuring out the support needs for the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“OIT provided network service, both wired and wireless,” he said, explaining that that meant working with Thomas & Mack's team to run 11 miles of cable from the the T&M, where the debate took place, to Cox Pavilion, where the media center was located, and into the parking lot, where broadcasters had set up their temporary headquarters.

And once the infrastructure was in place, OIT personnel had to be on hand to make sure everything ran smoothly. Personnel were assigned not only to the commission and the media center, but also to each of the two campaigns.

About 80 OIT employees — approximately half of the OIT staff and 20 student workers — staffed a 24-hour technical help desk for a full seven days surrounding the debate to ensure everyone in the complex had networking access as well as television screens, phones, and printers.

Cam worked 15-hour days and officially logged 137 hours in shifts between Oct. 12-20. That doesn’t even count the hours he dedicated before the debate to pull together the team of tech specialists and customer service experts. He also had to work with HR experts to ensure that, despite their zeal for volunteering, OIT staff and student workers stayed within the legal work requirements.

“My job wasn’t to solve the problem, but to organize the resources and get the right people to do the job,” Cam said, noting that it was a full team effort. That approach paid off when “all predictions were wrong about what support was needed when … We had a much shorter time window for doing the work than we expected.”

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Meanwhile, Isabelle, an administrative assistant IV who serves as the office manager for university communications, said her job chiefly revolved around being available at a moment’s notice to do whatever needed doing. Her “other duties as assigned” included chauffeuring dignitaries such as Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the commission, around campus and handing out tickets to the lucky winners of the student ticket lottery.

She also became a sudden expert on campus signage, ordering dozens of UNLV banners of various dimensions and worked with facilities to get them placed on buildings and poles around campus. She scheduled dozens of meetings, answered literally thousands of debate-related emails — most requesting those coveted tickets — served on the Communication, Marketing, and Community Outreach Subcommittee, and chaired its web, calendar, and social media working group.

“One of my favorite things was being able to interact with people from several areas of campus I normally wouldn’t work with,” Isabelle said. “I can see those relationships and friendships surviving beyond the debate.”

Asked what she considered the highlight of the process, she said, “To see the students being proud of our university and being proud of being a Rebel made all the time away from family worth it.

“I think one of the takeaways for us when we leave UNLV someday is that we will know we both helped contribute to this historic event. No one can take that away from us.”

Both Cam and Isabelle tried to take short breaks to enjoy the little moments during debate week. Isabelle walked around campus to make sure all seemed to be going well and to check out the CNN and MSNBC broadcast stages. Cam was interested to see a Secret Service agent who was checking every single seat at the Thomas & Mack as well as watching a man who seemed to spend an entire day vacuuming.

At the Johnson home at the end of the day, there was little talk about debate preparations, the couple said.

“We were living it. It was the last thing we wanted to talk about,” Isabelle said, adding that their lives reminded of the movie Groundhog Day: work on the debate all day, sleep, and then do it all over again.

But it’s still an experience they hope to repeat again someday, adding that, now that UNLV employees know what to expect, they could do an even better job next time.

“This wasn’t anything that one department on campus pulled together. It was something so many people on campus pulled together,” Cam said. “From my perspective, from what we were asked to do as a university, I think we crushed it.”