Actor Kal Penn visits Ames on behalf of Obama campaign, encourages students to get involved

Frances Myers

With signs lining the walls reading, “Christie Vilsack for Iowa,” “LGBT for Obama,” “2012 Barack Obama” and “African Americans for Obama,” and with lifesize cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama, it was clear this was the Democratic headquarters for the Obama Campaign in Ames.

Kal Penn, an actor famous for his role in the “Harold and Kumar” movies visited Ames on Friday, Aug. 3, on behalf of Young Americans for Obama for a meet and greet with ISU students. Penn is active in the Obama campaign as a co-chairman, as well as a former Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement.

More than 60 people gathered in the small open room lined with chairs. At the front, with a Cyclone flag and a raised platform, stood Romen Borsellino. Borsellino met Penn in 2007 when Penn visited Roosevelt High School as part of Obama’s campaign and Borsellino had the pleasure of introducing Penn.

“I met Kal in 2007 when he was out at Des Moines at my high school in Roosevelt,” Borsellino said. “We did a Young Americans event there. From there we stayed in touch and today he is someone that I am so proud to call a friend. A lot of people say to me, ‘Oh, that’s so cool, you know, you’re friends with Kal Penn, how is that possible?’ And it’s honestly possible because I cared about the election. I volunteered. I showed up in the campaign office to volunteer. As a result of that, I got friendship from this guy. The fact of the matter is, I cared about something and I worked for it. That’s what Kal’s been doing. That’s what a lot of the people in this room have been doing. If you care about something and you work for it, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Sometimes it doesn’t go unnoticed by Hollywood celebrities. Other times it doesn’t go unnoticed by middle class families who can now afford health care because of the work that you did and our work has not gone unnoticed and will not go unnoticed.”

Penn took the stand, thanking Borsellino for his introduction and noting he has been in Iowa multiple times for the campaign through the years.

“The reason that I came out to volunteer for the president, came out to Des Moines was because you guys were the first to have a caucus. You guys were also the first to now have early voting in the country, so I think that’s really fitting,” Penn said. “Just in a couple of the events with the Obama campaign in that three or four days when I was there, I got the chance to meet a lot of incredible young people who were dedicating so much of their time and energy to help the president’s campaign.”

Penn encouraged the students and young adults to get involved with the Obama campaign, highlighting ways they could get involved. For example, he said, they could come into the office, make phone calls, put together packets, knock on doors and encourage people to vote.

“Things like the war in Iraq and not having access to health care, not having proper access to student aid — those were all things that kept us going, I think beyond Iowa and to getting the president elected,” Penn said. “Now it’s really interesting, three years later, to see what the stakes are. The stakes are, incidentally, incredibly higher than they were even when Iowa had the first caucus. We’re out of Iraq, we’ve got reform to health care. We’ve got student loan reform. The economy’s bouncing back. We’re investing in science and technology and engineering.”

Penn said all of that can be taken away by such policies as Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney, who wish to do away with “Obamacare.” He said that when the policies of Obama and his opponents are looked at side by side, there are high stakes, not only for young people but for all families trying to get by during the economic recovery.

Penn said that in his time at the White House, he was able to see Obama’s strategies for student aid and student loans. He said there were three big things.

“One was to increase something called the Pell Grant,” Penn said. “The Pell Grant is now $5,500 that, if you qualify, you get every year to go to college or trade school or technical school. Something else that he did was restructure student loans. This was something that didn’t really make the news a whole lot, because it was happening around the same time as health care reform, but there were about $60 billion that the government was giving every year to big banks, to loan that money out to students. The big banks shockingly were marking up that money to exorbantly high rates and then loaning it out to young people. So what the president did, was cut out that middle man and student lender so it made it so that you were getting a much lower rate with a lot more financial resources. … Then the third, which I found really interesting at the White House, was something called the American Opportunities Tax Credit.”

Penn said this was controversial because, when the president was running, everybody from both sides thought this was a good idea, that the investment should be made. However, after about a year and a half, Speaker of the House John Boehner tried to convince the president to get rid of the American Opportunity Tax Credit or else Boehner would shut down the government.

“[Obama] did call Speaker Boehner’s bluff and the Republicans did have to cave on that particular issue and that sort of is the type of behind the scenes fighting the president is doing for young people every day and one of the many examples I can give you. The reason I like giving that example is because it’s not the kind of story you always see when you turn on the news. Everybody knows the president is an incredibly nice guy, and it’s all very true, but he’s fought really hard behind the scenes for working class families, for students, for veterans, for LGBT families, for folks that may not have otherwise had as strong of a voice in any other presidency, and I was really proud and honored to have the privilege of serving him for two years.”

“I am deeply honored to have the chance to come back on the campaign and work with you guys and getting him reelected, and I think that’s where the stakes are sort of wrapping it up. … Our campaign is probably not going to out-fundraise the Romney campaign. They have millions of dollars of undisclosed contributions that are coming in and that’s their strength. Our strength is you guys. It’s the president’s volunteers. … That’s our big strength.”

Penn said that, in terms of tax fairness and lowering the deficit, Obama can not do them without the people. He encouraged students to get involved, and hopefully more progress can be made within the next few years.