Actor Justin Long cajoles UF students to cast an informed vote

Actor Justin Long speaks to students at the Reitz Union on Wednesday in Gainesville. Long was in town campaigning for President Obama and helping to register voters.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 at 8:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 at 8:30 p.m.

The room was crowded both with freshmen girls shaking with excitement at meeting one of their romantic-comedy crushes and with fraternity brothers texting to mask their impatience to see that guy from "DodgeBall."

Justin Long strolled into the room of more than 100 University of Florida students, laughing amiably as they took photos and screamed his name. Long jokingly pulled out his iPhone to return the favor.

Blending into the crowd with a hole in the collar of his brown T-shirt and a classic pair of Levis pooling around his black Nikes, the actor admitted to the star-struck students that meeting President Barack Obama in New Hampshire while campaigning in 2008 reduced him to feeling like a giddy pre-teen at a Justin Bieber concert.

"I saw him again when I went to a screening of a Thurgood Marshall documentary at the White House," he said. "He goes, ‘Justin! We met at that barn in New Hampshire.' I couldn't talk. He remembered the name of the barn. I can't even remember the name of the barn now for the purposes of telling this story."

Known for his Apple commercials and movies like "Live Free or Die Hard," Long spoke in support of President Obama and the Florida Gators at a voter registration and phone-bank event hosted by Gators for Obama on Wednesday at the Reitz Union.

"When I was a kid, I was obsessed with football," he said. "I loved the Gators, because their helmets were cool. I was really superficial."

While Long has been doing a good deal of campaigning for Obama's re-election through Organizing for America, a community organizing project sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, he joined the effort in the 2008 election. At the time, he said, his political beliefs were not as pure or educated as they are now.

"I was kind of caught up by the Obama fervor," he said.

He got involved in the campaign because of his friend, actor Kal Penn, who came to UF in 2010 to encourage students to vote in midterm elections. Long said he came in with a mild curiosity in Obama's campaign.

"I was so taken by the energy and passion of these kids," he said. "Three or four days and I was patting myself on the back. For months they put off taking positions that would have paid them a lot of money."

Long said he vowed at that moment to become more politically aware. Learning about Obama's views on the core issues strengthened his support of the president, he said.

To him, one of the most important was Obama's commitment to making higher education affordable. After two years at Vassar College, he dropped out because of financial difficulties and strongly believes that Obama's efforts are critical for students.

He said he also supports the president's position on the environment, an issue he said is one of the most tangible for Americans.

This time around, Long said he is trying to get the word out, to encourage young voters to cast an informed ballot for their future. He urged the students to do the research and know who they're electing.

"I think I'm compelled not only by my love and support for the president," he said, "but also my fear for the alternative. I'm worried about our future."

For Long, what happened after the 2000 election scared him into realizing that America needed a change. In that election, he voted for Ralph Nader, a longtime independent candidate, and has regretted it since.

"I had a lot of friends who were hipsters, just out of Vassar, and it was the fashionable thing to do," he said. "I feel like I was quite selfish. I squandered my vote."

That message was one of the most important that UF freshman Nicole Martins, 17, said she took from Long.

"I thought it was hilarious that he and his friends voted for Nader, because it was the cool thing to do," she said. "I think that's a very dangerous trap for young voters."

Rachel McGovern, president of Gators for Obama, said spreading this message about the value of an informed vote is why these kinds of events are important.

"The University of Florida is going to play a huge role in the upcoming election," she said. "There's just thousands of new voters here who couldn't vote in the last election. It's so important we get them registered to vote."

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