What It's Like To Be A 24-Year-Old Woman Running For Congress

"It seems like people have a strange obsession with my eyebrows. I would really love it if you could give me some feedback on my ideas."

Sometime late last winter, I sat across from Lindy Li at a Manhattan hotel and asked her to repeat herself when she told me she was running for Congress in 2016.

Li and I were classmates in college, and have worked together on Princeton's alumni council since graduating in 2012. At the time of our meeting, she had recently moved to New York from Philadelphia for a finance job. But she had her sights set on something different: a seat in Congress for Pennsylvania's 7th District. (For the sake of transparency, I am not eligible to vote in Pennsylvania's 7th District.)
In the months since we first spoke about her congressional run, Li has moved back to Radnor, Pennsylvania, and launched her campaign, Lindy Li for U.S. Congress. If she is successful, Li will be the youngest woman to be elected to Congress. The current holder of that title, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), was 30 years old when she was elected in 2014.
Pennsylvania is many thousands of miles away from where Li was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. Her parents left to study in the United Kingdom when she was two weeks old, but could not afford to bring her with them. She was raised by relatives and friends in China, joining her parents in the United States when she was five years old. The family lived briefly in New Haven and Boston before settling in Malvern, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, Li won a scholarship to attend the Agnes Irwin School, and graduated from Princeton University in 2012. 
In the congressional primary this April, Li will be up against Democrats Mary Ellen Balchunis and Dave Naples. If she wins the primary, next November she will face the 7th District's three-term incumbent, conservative Republican and former U.S. Attorney Rep. Pat Meehan
Articles about Li's campaign in The Washington PostNBC News and the Daily Princetonian have drawn mixed commentary. Li says she no longer reads the comments on any pieces written about her, though she responds to any posts an individual makes on her campaign Facebook page. Detractors have criticized her youth and lack of political experience, and accused her of race-hopping. Supporters have held her up as a role model and a hard worker
Li as a child with her parents, grandparents and younger brother, Jeffrey. 
Li as a child with her parents, grandparents and younger brother, Jeffrey. 
Curious about how she decided to run for Congress and what the process had been like, I spoke with Li on the phone about quitting her job, moving back to her home state, and launching a political campaign. 

How did you decide to run for Congress?

 It’s been a lifelong dream. I have always known that I was going to do this, the only thing that was variable was when I was going to jump in. Really I decided to run 20 minutes before my 24th birthday, in a crowd of strangers. I had gone to a party for the Pennsylvania Society, a gathering at the Waldorf-Astoria for all the movers and shakers in Pennsylvania. I wasn’t invited to this thing by the way, I was totally crashing the party. As you can probably guess, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I navigated the crowd and somehow ended up talking to two people* very involved in Pennsylvania politics. I made it known to them that I was going to run for Congress in 2020, that I’m a first-generation immigrant, that I’m the granddaughter of people who don’t even speak Mandarin Chinese -- [they are] not educated at all.

They asked me, “What are you waiting for, someone to step up? Everyone is assuming that someone else is going to solve their problems.” It took me a while to convince them that I have a brain. They [told me] that they only wanted to talk to me because they thought I looked “interesting.” That’s a euphemism. So when they finally realized that I had an intellectual foundation on which to make these statements, they [were] like, "Fine, OK, give me your number." And that’s when I began the whole process.

Li with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Li with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

How have people reacted to you during your campaign?

[Originally], people were thinking, “What the heck?” because my story is so unprecedented. But after a while, they realized I was serious about this. I’ve received some cruel comments. I’ve seen more cruelty and pain in the past couple of months than I’ve seen all my life.

If I talk about trolls, it gives them power. People make up lies about me, but people who actually know me know that what [the trolls] are saying is so far from the truth. And the only way for me to prove people wrong is to keep on being who I am. At least with detractors there is a kernel of truth, distorted. Or there’s constructive criticism that I should take. 

I’ve also been on the receiving end of hateful Internet comments, including some very pointed ones about my gender, race and appearance, which I don't think my white, male colleagues generally receive. Have you had a similar experience?

Rather than critiquing my platform, rather than talking about my ideas, [people] talk about my appearance.

They think to change me. They’re like “Oh, you should grow bushier eyebrows.” [They say] that I should buy a new dress, random things like that. I’m like, "What about the problems with education infrastructure and college affordability? Should I tweak my platform? Do you have some substantive advice?  You’re not going to elect me because you like my nose." I’m still fighting these comments. At one point I said, “It seems like people have a strange obsession with my eyebrows. I would really love it if you could give me some feedback on my ideas.”

Another point of discussion surrounding your campaign has been your age. You’re a very young candidate running for Congress, and you are at least two decades younger than your opponents. How do you think your age gives you advantages and disadvantages?

I try to see any potential weakness as a strength. And for me, ability, intelligence, work ethic, energy, vitality -- these are qualities that matter more than age. I’d be happy to get on a stage [with my opponents] and have a debate on ideas, to see who would be a better public servant. That’s how we should be judged by our constituents, not by a number.

In Pennsylvania, we’re a huge state -- the 6th most populous. We have 20 members of Congress, not a single one is a woman. And not a single one is of my generation, or even close. There’s not a single person in the House of Representatives, and therefore in the senate, under the age of 31. So we lack female representation, and we lack representation of the youth. 

Li with Congressman Ted Lieu at a recent campaign event. 
Li with Congressman Ted Lieu at a recent campaign event. 

You’ve mentioned college affordability. What are other issues that really matter to you?

Campaign finance reform. The 2016 Presidential election is going to cost $5 billion. And then we complain that we don’t have enough money in the public schools. There is such a bad allocation of resources.

My district is one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. And I want to show the country that we are smarter than the cynical politicians who drew our district. It doesn’t make any sense. My district runs from the edge of Philadelphia to Amish Country. There are portions that are 800 feet across -- the span of the highway. Congress is [in trouble] if we don’t change the way our campaigns are funded.

I want to do something about gun laws, but I can’t, because the NRA is in the way. I want to do something about climate change, which is near and dear to my heart and I think is the defining issue of the 21st century, but I can’t because big oil like Exxon Mobil is in the way. I want to do something about a woman’s right to choose, but I can’t, because there are so many special interest groups.

I find it extremely ironic that people interested in decreasing government regulation in some areas just so happen to be the very ones who are so gung-ho, and so ready to regulate women’s bodies. The irony is just painful. And this is compounded by the fact that no Pennsylvanian woman has a voice in the halls of Congress. At the state level, Afghanistan has more women in its national legislature than Pennsylvania has in the state House. Where are we right now? We’re living in the Middle Ages in terms of representation.

What has being on the campaign trail been like? What have you learned?

I think it's kind of wonderful how I've slipped into this new role of meeting people and hearing their concerns. I love that part. It underscored how much reform is needed. I should not spend so much time fundraising. I should be on the ground hearing people’s stories, hearing their pain, their joys, what works in their communities, and what doesn’t. And I look forward to more of those moments. That’s when I’m happy. Not when I’m at a desk, reaching out to donors. 

*These people confirmed to The Huffington Post that their meeting with Li happened as described, but asked that their names be omitted from the article, citing privacy concerns.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 
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