Lindy Li hates to lose.
In fact, she may not even know the meaning of the word.
She has shown that time and again. Like when she persuaded her parents to let her transfer from a public high school to a prestigious all-girls prep school by earning a scholarship. Or when she knocked on 1,200 doors across campus during her freshman fall at Princeton campaigning for the class presidency. Or at her 2012 graduation, when she was told to skip her address as class president so that keynote speaker Steve Carell could give his speech sooner and the poncho-clad graduates could get out of the rain.
“Steve said: ‘Just go up there. Who’s going to stop you?’ ” she recalls, after she bemoaned her predicament to the comedian backstage. “So I did.”
She just does. It’s as simple as that.
Now, Li wants the biggest something yet — a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
If she wins in November 2016, when she’ll be 26, she will be the youngest woman ever elected to and to serve in Congress. That’s four years younger than the current titleholder — Upstate New York Republican Elise Stefanik, who was elected last year at 30. And still four years too young to run for the U.S. Senate.
There are, of course, a few hurdles in her way. First, she’s running as a Democrat in one of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country — Pennsylvania’s 7th, which seeps westward like a lopsided H from the outskirts of Philadelphia and contains swaths of five counties. Some chunks are no wider than 800 feet across. It has gone Republican in both congressional and presidential races since 2010.
In the primary, she’ll face at least two other Democrats with more experience, of both the political and the life variety — Mary Ellen Balchunis, a La Salle University political science professor who ran for the seat in 2014, and Dave Naples, a database administrator and former write-in candidate for governor. And next November awaits Rep. Pat Meehan, the district’s three-term incumbent — a 59-year-old conservative Republican and a former U.S. attorney.
None of this seems to faze the 24-year-old Li.
“She told me, ‘The seat is mine,’ ” Richard Li says of his daughter’s stubborn response to his initial concerns that perhaps her sights are set too high, that she’s a bit too young. It was a classic foot-stomp reaction from someone of Li’s generation, known for its special brand of optimism infused with extreme confidence.
Don’t tell a millennial she can’t, when all her life she has been told she can.
“They don’t know what they’re dealing with,” Li says of her doubters. “No one wants this more than me.” It’s the slogan of a generation: Want something bad enough, and you’ll figure out a way to get it.
How hard could it be?
Sitting in the front passenger seat of her father’s silver SUV, Li is reading her packed schedule with the exuberance of someone who isn’t about to spend her Saturday driving from meeting to meeting. Thin as a rail and petite (5-foot-3 and three-quarters, she says definitively), she’s like a miniature tornado, all unbridled excitement and energy in a mustard-yellow J. Crew sundress and towering straw wedges. With her thick black curls tumbling gracefully over her shoulders, she looks remarkably unfrazzled for having just arrived off a Greyhound bus from an event in New Jersey.
Her father, whom she affectionately calls Baba — Chinese for Dad — is the designated driver, as usual. A real estate agent and property manager, Richard knows all the shortcuts, zigzagging around the jagged, sprawling district in record time. Her mother, Jessica, is away on a church mission trip in China.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Richard says of his daughter’s candidacy. Although, he says, “I was shocked by the timing,” noting that she had been at her financial analyst job with Morgan Stanley for less than a year before announcing her candidacy. But he raised his children to be leaders, he explains. “They have their own vision for the future.”
Her independence didn’t come easily, Li chimes in. Her parents emigrated from China to England and eventually to the United States when Lindy was 5 years old. Richard’s schooling — he was studying to become a doctor — meant that they moved around a lot. He turned down a residency in Australia and got into real estate so that Lindy and her brother, Jeffrey, now 15, could have some consistency.
Her parents were strict, expecting a lot from their kids. No one was entitled to the American Dream; they had to work hard for it. “I was forced to play piano hours a day,” she says. “I was forced to study.” In high school, she participated in crew and ran track and cross-country. “I did everything I could, because I was terrified about getting into college.”
The terror of falling behind didn’t fade after she got into Princeton. She majored in philosophy and got involved in student government — becoming the only woman in university history to serve as class president for four consecutive years. Saving the environment became her “shtick,” she says. She started a campus-wide initiative to curb excessive energy use called Do It in the Dark. She thought about going to law school — a means to an eventual end in politics — but landed a high-paying job in finance instead.
“At Princeton, all of us go into Wall Street,” she explains. “We have so much to offer society, but we’re enticed by these ephemeral and meaningless ups. It’s sad that so many of us have lost touch with the ideals we brought into college.”
Instead of slowing down or taking a year off to, say, backpack across Europe or teach English in South Korea like many of her 20-something compatriots, she decided to run for Congress.
Why not an office that’s more attainable? One where she could hone her political chops and then move up? Like school board member, or “Lindy, the Tax Collector?” she jokes.
“I want to make a high-level difference,” she says dismissively, as if there were no point to the question. “I want to do something I’m infinity times excited about.”
Marching up to a packed picnic table at a barbecue thrown by state Rep. Margo Davidson (D) in a primarily lower-middle-class community in Upper Darby, Li asks earnestly, “What are the issues that matter most to you?” Her hands clasped neatly in front of her, she listens politely, nodding as the seated African American family gripes about the country’s student debt problem.
“They have loans that are outrageous, and the interest starts the day they take them,” says one woman about recent college grads her son’s age. There should be loan forgiveness or other incentives so that young people aren’t crushed by debt when they’re just starting out, she says.
Li agrees: “Everyone deserves access to education. I came [to America] with nothing but my hopes and dreams.” Her education was everything. It got her here: “The granddaughter of illiterate Chinese farmers is running for Congress.”
Ever the honor roll student, Li spouts such affirmations and political truisms as if she has memorized them for a final exam.
Why run in this particular district? “Because I grew up here. I know every twig on every tree and every blade of grass,” the Radnor resident replies, without skipping a beat. On the issue of gun violence, she says firmly, “We can’t let hardened criminals and those with mental-health issues get access to guns.” At least twice, she stresses the importance of “connecting with people on a visceral level” while campaigning and “hearing their pain. There’s so much pain out there.”
Beneath all this practiced political jargon, is there any specific plan of action? Her opponents think perhaps not. “She offers no concrete proposals,” says Naples, while Balchunis simply points to her lack of experience.
The few times Li takes a break from campaign-speak, it’s to ask which television shows are worth binge-watching or to search BuzzFeed for a viral post on a puppy that looks like a teddy bear that “you just have to see!” Or to talk about her feeling of kinship with singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. “When she was switching from country to pop, she didn’t listen to the naysayers,” Li says.
But she’s an exceptional 24, says college friend Anthony Pappenfus, “with a passion and drive that I haven’t seen in seasoned veterans.” He sees her youth as an asset: “Our generation needs a voice. I think Lindy is that voice.”
Plus, Li points out, being young means that she has no skeletons to unearth during a potentially cutthroat campaign season. “The worst thing that could ever happen to me is if someone digs up my one traffic ticket,” she says.
Back in the car on the way to the day’s final meeting, Li shows no signs of exhaustion, despite not having eaten a thing all afternoon. An avid runner, she clocks 5.38 miles each day, “because that’s how long it takes to run in 38 minutes.” It’s all the time she can spare.
Doesn’t the constant go ever get to her?
“I’ve never slept better,” she insists. “I’ve never had this much serenity.”
She pauses for a moment of reflection. The car is quiet, perhaps for the first time all day. This campaign has cost her some friends, she says, specifically a first love. He was intimidated, she says, by her passion.
“They’d say, ‘You don’t know if you’ll want this in six years,’ ” she remembers of those friends she’s lost. “But no! Let me do what I’ve always dreamed of.”
Even a loss won’t stop her from getting what she wants. “Congressional elections are every two years, you know,” she says with a sly smile. She’ll keep running until she gets there.
Just dare her not to.