On the surface, Lindy Li has three strikes against her in the handicap-filled field of American politics: she’s Asian, female, and young.
However, this 25-year-old, China-born Pennsylvanian may well be the face of Asian American legislators to come.
The daughter of mainland immigrants attracted notice this year after she filed as a Democratic candidate for the state’s 6th Congressional District.
The increasingly diverse suburban district includes communities north and west of Philadelphia. It’s 88% white, 6.8% African American, 3.7% Hispanic, 2.1% Asian and less than 1% other.
Li dropped out of the Democratic primary in April following a challenge to her nominating petitions — but not before drawing national media attention. Many expect the former Morgan Stanley advisor to run again for elected office.
“I know I was born to do this. I know what it takes and I’m ready to do it,” said Li who wants to appeal to all voters of Pennsylvania’s varied constituency. She says her dream of being a successful public servant consumes every waking moment. “I have more white hairs on my head than my parents. Politics isn’t an easy game,” she added.
The media was drawn to the fact that Li would have been the youngest woman ever elected to Congress had she won. She also was the embodiment of a “can’t keep me down” millennial generation that transcends ethnic lines.
The other thing stoking interest in Li as a serious candidate was a hefty campaign war chest — much of it amassed from Asian American and other donors locally and nationwide.
“I raised almost US$1 million. I have more money in the bank now than many people who are running for Congress,” said Li who successfully campaigned as an undergrad for the presidency of her Princeton University class. The cash is there for her next campaign.
Some say the largesse was aided by wealthy parents. Li rebuts the notion. She notes that federal law limits individual campaign contributions to US$2,700. “How could my parents contribute more than US$5,400? My war chest was the result of individual donations,” she said.
Li still faces an uphill fight as a virtual unknown in Pennsylvania politics. She may have to challenge rivals of either party at the local or congressional level. But Li, who arrived in the US when she was four, and later earned a scholarship to an elite prep school that led to Princeton, is used to jumping hurdles.
“Everyone falls down, but not everyone gets up in the right way. I think I’ve done that,” Li said.
Trump hasn’t outright attacked Chinese Americans yet — but it’s just a matter of time
With the November 8 US presidential election just days away, Li has a ringside seat in a battleground state that will help decide the next president.
Pennsylvania commands 20 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Asian Americans comprise only 2.1% of the state’s electorate, but many reside in pivotal urban election districts where polls show the Asian vote swinging to Hillary Clinton.
Still, Li worries about what she says is last-minute support for Donald Trump among some Chinese Americans. “I hear rumblings about an insurgent Trump vote,” Li said.
She attributes it to a transference of cultural values to a candidate who doesn’t represent Asian American interests. “I know that personal responsibility, hard work, sacrifice and the value of education are pillars of East Asian culture. [Some who] believe this think their interests would be advanced more under a Trump administration … I’m hearing this from many quarters,” Li said.
She adds that some tradition-minded Chinese also favor Trump because of his vows to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.
Li, as a Democrat, rails against Trump’s views on race and immigration. “Trump began his campaign by attacking Mexicans. He then called for a ban on Muslims. He hasn’t outright attacked Chinese Americans yet — but it’s just a matter of time,” Li said.
“People have to understand you can’t quarantine racism. It’s a poison, it spreads. Chinese Americans are naive in thinking we’re untouchable.”
At the same time, Li is effusive about the benefits of being an American. “I don’t want to go on the negative too much because on the whole, I’m deeply grateful to America for giving immigrants an opportunity to lead a better life,” she said.
“I’d be nowhere without this country. I owe every article of clothing on my back, my education, my family, my friends, for the opportunities the United States offers.”
Li is younger than the mostly older Asian American politicians who represent constituencies in states like California and New York. As such, she’s another sign of a generational shift in leadership that is shaking many minority communities in the US.
But the age gap didn’t stop a number of Asian American political figures and celebrities from other parts of the US from flying in to aid her primary run.
“Asian Americans from around the country see an opportunity in me to get their concerns aired. I have many faults, but I’m definitely fearless,” she said with typical millennial aplomb.
Locally, Li is active in efforts to stem a recent tide of armed robberies against Asian Americans in Philadelphia. “In 2016 alone, 100 people have been attacked throughout the Philadelphia region,” said Li who recently testified at a city council hearing on behalf of such victims — many of whom are small business owners.
“These people come to this country and pour their hearts and souls into building these small businesses. In a single evening so much of that is snatched away from them and the authorities don’t take their complaints seriously,” Li said.
She says getting more Asian Americans involved in the political process is the answer. But Li notes: “I think voter registration is a problem. I think we’re not politically engaged.” One anecdote from her primary campaign is that she encountered many Chinese who wanted to sign her nominating petitions but couldn’t because they weren’t registered voters.
Li also thinks steps should be taken to form an Asian American political action committee (PAC) that pools contributions and campaigns for or against candidates nationally with the interests of the Asian American community in mind.
What’s the future of Asian Americans in the Democratic Party? “I’m really hopeful about it, we’re making inroads,” Li said. “But until we have more representation it’s not enough to work on Wall Street or as scientists.”
Li isn’t shy about saying she intends to run for office again. “I never lost because I never ran,” she pointed out.
What’s her next move? Watch this space.
Doug Tsuruoka is the Asia Times editor-at-large