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A Q&A with Lindy Li, an ex-wealth manager running for Congress | #PA5

Li says she is running to "make sure that everyone has access to the American Dream."

Lindy Li is a Democrat running in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
Lindy Li is a Democrat running in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.Read moreCAMPAIGN PHOTO

Lindy Li, a former wealth manager with Morgan Stanley, says she is running for Congress to "make sure that everyone has access to the American dream regardless of their gender or race or socioeconomic status."

Li, 27, supports Medicare-for-All, debt-free college and a ban on assault weapons. She is one of 10 Democrats in the primary for Pennsylvania's Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes part of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

Before running in 2018, Li had plans in prior years to campaign in a few other congressional districts.

We asked her about that, President Trump's strikes on Syria, the fact that she lives outside of the district, and more. Our talk with her is the sixth in a series of Q&As with all of the Fifth District's candidates, except for two did who did not respond to our request for an interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Seven Quick Facts About Li’s Agenda:

  1. Her plan to create jobs: Raise the minimum wage, "focus on jobs of the 21st century," invest in vocational training

  2. On a $15 minimum wage: Supports it but "I think it has to be somewhat incremental"

  3. Student loan debt: Backs debt-free college

  4. Marijuana: For legalize recreational pot "immediately"

  5. National jobs guarantee: Supports it but "I want to make sure that we have a way to pay for it without blowing up the deficit"

  6. Super PACs: "They should absolutely not be" involved in this race

  7. The budget deficit: Stop "subsidizing our fossil-fuel companies, our oil companies"

Why are you running for Congress? I am running for Congress to make sure that everyone has access to the American dream regardless of their gender or race socioeconomic status. I'm a first-generation American, I came to this country when I was very little, but my family and I were able to build something amazing out of of it, out of hard work and determination, and right now I feel like people are struggling to get by let alone getting ahead.  There are so many things that need to be done.

The final catalyst for me was nearly six years ago at Sandy Hook. December 14th is also my birthday and I just remember being so shattered by it. I spent a year in Connecticut and it's very close to where I lived. And it really hit home to me, and it was seared into my soul. And I was just so sick and tired of just waiting for politicians to do something about it. I feel like we would be waiting forever. We are the ones we're waiting for. We have to get the job done, and it's not just gun violence. But also health care and money in politics, so many things.

I currently serve as trustee of the American Association for Cancer Research. I also have been doing cancer research advocacy over the years. Many of my family have succumbed to cancer.  My dad was a medical doctor, so I'm surrounded by this world, growing up. He practiced at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Before I came down to Pennsylvania in 1999, so I remember when I was kid and trying to comb the pages of New England Journal of Medicine, trying to decipher a cure for cancer. … It's been ingrained in me from a young age that we have to do something to make sure the cancer is not a disease that you die from but  just something that you have to manage like diabetes. I don't want it to be a death sentence.

Do you have any government experience? You said you interned with former Congressman Joe Sestak? That is correct, yes … in his Media office, and I started when I was a freshman in high school and I guess they liked me so they asked me back in college. I worked in his Longworth Office on Capitol Hill … it was an exciting time because he was running for Senate as well. And that was my first exposure to the donut hole. And Medicare and Medicaid and a lot. … 2010 was the year of the death panels … and so I was writing a lot of letters just calming senior citizens down, reassuring them that it was essentially Republican propaganda. No one was going to send your grandmother to death.

It was just a way for them to drum up opposition to the Affordable Care Act. So it was definitely baptism by fire. I learned a lot, but it gave me familiarity with the problems of Delaware County. And I went to grade school here anyway … I bought my first house in Radnor … My brother went to the Haveford School, right, so it's it's essentially my first home in America. I did work for him for about five years … it was an ongoing thing. I graduated from his Media office to Longworth,

What would you say to voters who are concerned that you don't have government experience beyond that internship? I think my experience in other different arenas gives me a unique perspective. For example, my time in the financial services industry impressed upon me the need for Dodd Frank. I've seen firsthand how greed can get out of hand. And I'm extremely grateful for my former employer for hiring me, and I'm not going to criticize him. It's an industry-wide phenomenon. They claim to be putting their clients first, but if they are why are they charging the 1 percent of the retirement savings every year. And so I've seen firsthand. It's not just an abstract issue for me. It was viscerally real. And I saw firsthand the need for Glass-Steagall. We need a wall between commercial and investment baking.

Had it not been for my experience working for these institutions, I wouldn't have realized the importance of these rules, and I feel like a lot of people are forgetting the pain of 2008. … I don't forget. That was the year that my family's house burned down too. .. It was like Murphy's Law that year. I don't want people … to remember the dangers that can be unleashed by the excesses of Wall Street, and so I believe that my private sector experience gives me a unique perspective on crafting legislation to make sure that Wall Street doesn't again lay Main Street prostrate. Just because Wall Street prospers doesn't mean that mean that Main Street does as well. In fact, most Americans don't own equities.

A recent report found that most Americans can't afford an $1,000 emergency. Wages have been stagnating for the middle class, and income inequality is high. What is your plan to create jobs and raise wages? I'm in favor of a $15 minimum wage. I think it has to be somewhat incremental … I don't want to … jump overnight. I know that this is a step to transition into that that rate, but if you adjust for inflation, wages haven't grown since the 1970s. I think that's a pretty enormous problem. Because now CEOs make [hundreds] of times that of an average worker, and productivity has soared, but workers' wages haven't kept up. And I don't think it's coincidence that the decline of the middle class has also coincided with the decline of unions. So the first thing I would do is move from $7.25 to $15 an hour.

And secondly, I think we need to focus on the jobs of the 21st century. It makes me cringe every time I hear Trump talk about how we have to bring coal jobs back. They're not coming back. And frankly, if you look at it, there aren't many coal jobs left to begin with, like 50,000 … something like that. And I think we need to focus on jobs that will allow us to stay on the forefront of innovation internationally. … At this point in time, we need to equip our students with scientific and mathematical skills to be able to have skills that employers actually want. …

I'm a proponent of liberal arts education. At the same time, I think we need to do everything we can to invest in vocational and technical training. … We should not have a cookie-cutter method towards education, and not everyone needs to go through college, spend $60,000 a year getting a traditional liberal arts degree. … College affordability is something that I wish we could talk more about on the campaign trail. And it's important to have a young voice at the table because … the issues that are pertinent to us are just different. And it's not just young people who are affected by college debt. … The parents, the adults who are trying to help us do education, they're suffering too. I thought the number was $1.3 trillion, but I just realized the number is actually $1.5 trillion. It's astounding. And the tax scam this past December could have paid that off.

Talk about your foreign policy positions. Do you see yourself an interventionist, an isolationist, none of the above, or somewhere in between? I'm definitely not an interventionist. I think that I'd rather us invest in home-building than nation-building overseas. There's so many things that need to be fixed. It just it breaks my heart to think that the money we poured into Iraq and Afghanistan could have been spent on our public schools and rejuvenating our cities. … We definitely made the situation in the Middle East more volatile.

And I think we have to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. … We can't just leave, because we don't have a better alternative. We just make sure that we quote-unquote trust, but also definitely verify. Frankly, if we leave the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea has less incentive to engage with us, because they see from administration to administration, the United States can change its mind. … Why should we agree to a deal if it's just going to be ripped up in the next administration?

What's your position on President Trump's strikes on Syria? I don't think he should have done that. I think we need a new [Authorization for Use of Military Force]. The old one believe is from 2002, and it's been stretched to the point of being ridiculous. It was meant to cover Al Qaeda, not Syria, and so he needs to go to Congress to ask for permission. And I know a lot of members of Congress don't want to be put on the record. … That's the whole point of being in public service. You need to be held accountable for actions. And that's another thing, I see so much cowardice in  Congress, not only on the Syria issue, but gun violence and so many other things. People are so scared of losing their seats, and I think that's a benefit of youth too.

I don't really care so much. I care more about doing the right thing and trusting the American people would understand. That might be a really naive point of view, but I I'd rather do the right thing, cast the right vote, then just coast and hope for the best, and hope that no one notices, because that just that defeats the whole purpose of quitting my job to run for office. I wanted to do something bold … to help heal our country. …

You have said you support recognizing Jerusalem the capital of Israel, correct? And can you talk about your position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I think a two-state solution is the only way to go, and both sides need to concede, need to make concessions and come to the table without preexisting conditions. … So many issues in the Middle East stem from that conflict, and we need to do something. It's like a football being passed down from administration to administration. As for the recognition of Jerusalem, this has been longstanding United States policy. We've just been procrastinating and shoving the issue down to the next generation and so … I'm a little ambivalent about this, because I know that Trump made the decision not based on the facts on the ground but rather to cater to a domestic base, which I think is never a good idea when it comes to foreign policy. Foreign policy should be dealt with based on the merits of the specific case. …

I think he's definitely pandering to a domestic base, the people who got him elected. And I think it's not a good idea to make your foreign policy decisions based on reelection. Although I do believe that he's not the first president to have done that, unfortunately.

Let's say it's 2019. The Democrats have taken back control of the U.S. House, and Nancy Pelosi and Tim Ryan are running against each other for Speaker. Who do you vote for? I'm voting for Tim, assuming that nobody else runs. … I think Joe Kennedy would be outstanding. I think we need a new generation of leadership. … Leader Pelosi has been tremendously supportive of me over the years. At the same time, I think it's time for a new generation to step up and take some responsibility, and she's become a lightning rod for so many attacks on us by the Republicans. I think we need to remove that. But at the same time, I am deeply grateful for the endless contributions she has made to our country, including the passage of the Affordable Care Act. That bill would not have been possible had it not been for her efforts, and she's just a master politician.

And actually, one thing that she shared with me on gun violence has informed my advocacy. And she was telling me about a Simpsons episode in which someone tries to buy a gun and the gun shop owner says, "You can't buy a gun, you have to wait three days." And the guy say, "Three days? I'm not going to be angry in three days." And I don't remember a lot of things that politicians say, but that anecdote has stayed with me over the years

John Paul Stevens, a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, has called for the Second Amendment to be repealed. Where do you stand on that idea? And can you talk generally about your views on gun laws? I think the Heller decision definitely issued a modern interpretation that is quite foreign to the original text of the Constitution. The Constitution itself says a well-regulated militia. Nowhere in the Constitution, nowhere in the document does it say an individual's right to bear arms. So I believe that's a modern manifestation and it's [former Justice Antonin] Scalia's doing. So if we actually revert to originalist interpretation of the Constitution, I think that's perfectly fine. And Scalia claimed to be an originalist, so it's doubly ironic. I am almost certain that the founding fathers did not envision an individual's right to bear machine guns. Frankly, if you need a machine gun to hunt deer, you're a really poor shot. And it's just, it's insane, the lens to which the Second Amendment has been stretched. …

I do not support the repeal. I support an originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment, which says a well-regulated militia. I don't think machine guns or assault weapons should be in the hands of anybody but law enforcement. I'm in favor of a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks. Absolutely everything you can think of, I'm probably in favor. I'm so deeply scarred by gun violence. It is the final catalyst for me to enter politics. Quitting your job is not easy. I was pushed over the edge just by one incident after another … Las Vegas, Aurora, Parkland, Pulse nightclub. The list goes on and on. These things are terrible and horrific beyond words, but what about the everyday shootings in Chester, Philadelphia?

It's despicable, and I walk down the streets of our city and I see these memorials and Picachus and teddy bears and Bibles. These are memorials to lives lost because of gun violence. We can do better than this, we can give our people better lives. And we need young people who are not in the pockets of special interests, firms, super PACs, who are not afraid to vote the right way. And I don't care if I get an F rating from the NRA . I'd wear it as a badge of honor. In fact, if I don't get a F rating, I think I'm not doing my job vigorously enough.

We asked our readers to submit questions to the Fifth District congressional candidates. Here is one: Is your campaign staff unionizedNo … but I think it's a fantastic idea. NPR just did a segment on that last week, and I'm paying everyone at least $15 an hour. … And if I had a super PAC or if I had more discretionary funds, I would definitely take the more because they are doing their utmost and I'm so proud of them. But I think campaign workers are some at least recognized and appreciated people in our economy today. So I'm absolutely in favor of this. And if I had more time on my hands, we would absolutely unionize.

You say on your website you support debt-free college. Where do you stand on free college? I support free community college. I am a little bit different from other people in our party that I have a deep commitment to fiscal responsibility. As I mentioned to you, I didn't have much when I came to this country. When I worked at Wawa, I was making $9 an hour trying to save up for school, and I just I can't shake this economic depression mentality that I have and I want to make sure that we don't do anything to blow up the deficit. If we have a plan like Bernie Sanders is proposing, how are we going to pay for it? And he was actually heritage on the campaign trail because he didn't have a very comprehensive plan for that. And likewise, I don't want to raise taxes on the middle class. I think we need to maximize the value of each taxpayer dollar that we are already paying. The only tax that I want to impose, other than revoking the tax again in December, is a capital gains tax to make sure Wall Street pays its fair share.

But we have to do something about college debt because right now Wall Street has better interest rates than our students. And for me, I would work towards interest rates for students that lie between 2 and 3 percent, and also something called a flexible loan repayment program so that students never pay more than 10 percent of their monthly income to pay down their debt.

Do you agree with Nancy Pelosi, who said that Democrats can be pro-life? Or do you agree with Tom Perez, who said "every Democrat" should support abortion rightsThat's a tough question. I'm just not one of those purists that reject anybody who even has a shade a disagreement. Obviously, I'm deeply committed to women's rights, and I believe that women should be masters of their own destiny and that reproductive decisions should be remain between a woman and her doctor. At the same time, if a Democrat is with us on every other issue except one, I  am just not going to burn them at the stakes. I want a big-tent strategy.

What is your position on President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum and other products? And where do you stand on free trade versus trade protectionism generally? I read 10 pages a day, just escape from the insanity that is my life right now and I just finished finished Bull Pulpit. I'm reading Wilson from A. Scott Berg. And these are some of the issues that they were dealing with in the 1920s and the 1910s. Have we not learned from history? Protectionism will lead us down a terrible path and not just for us. A tit-for-tat trade war is not a good idea. We know that. Why are we arguing something that is already proven to be a bad idea? And frankly, we need China on so many different issues, including climate change, North Korea and Iran nuclear deal. There's some issues that can only be tackled on an international stage. We cannot become isolationists.

What is your position on the national jobs guarantee that Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to unveil, and that others like Sen. Cory Booker have expressed support for? I absolutely do. I like Booker's proposal … I want to make sure that we have a way to pay for it without blowing up the deficit. It's our generation that's going to be paying off our debt. Our futures have been mortgaged on this. … The concept sounds great. It always does, it always sounds like a shining beacon on the hill. But how are we actually going to pay for it?

You had plans previously to run in the old Seventh Congressional District. Then in the Old Sixth. Then you were going to run in the new First, and then that district completely changed under the state Supreme Court's new congressional district map. Now you're running for the Fifth. So why should voters believe that you actually want to represent the Fifth as opposed to just wanting a seat in Congress? The [old] Seventh District is Delaware County, and the old First District comprised of parts of Delaware County and South Philadelphia, which is still part of the Fifth. And, frankly, these problems don't disappear from district to district. I'm motivated by issues that transcend boundaries and that are overarching. I'm just absolutely determined to serve this country. I can feel it in the marrow of my bones that I'm supposed to sacrifice. I'm supposed to do something for this country that gave me and my family hope. I would be nowhere without America. … I come from a country in which you can't read the failing New York Times, you can't go on Facebook and Twitter. You can't speak up because you're going to get arrested. I truly believe, and a lot of people are down on America, but I bullish on America still. I want to everything I can. … I can guarantee you that there's no one who would work harder in this position. .. I'm spending every waking moment on being the best public servant I can be, learning the most things I can, walking the streets of Montgomery County, Delaware County, Philadelphia. Trying to learn how people are suffering, and you hear the same stories. It's about health care. It's about wage growth. And these issues, frankly, the boundaries have changed so much at this point.

What is your position on legalizing recreational marijuana?I think we need to do it immediately. This ties into issue of criminal justice reform. … We need to end cash bail. We need to end mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. And, frankly, even though … more white people smoke marijuana and do marijuana, more African-Americans are arrested. So I think this is this goes to racial inequity, and another aspect of this, another reason why we should is that this will possibly help us alleviate the opioid epidemic in that marijuana is less addictive than narcotics at when it comes to pain relief. So that's another aspect of it.

Do you support impeaching President Trump? Yes, I do. He is in violation of so many different laws, including the emoluments clause. The hotel that he owns in Washington has become a cesspool for people wanting access to the White House. They are selling their influence. It's plain as day. It's like that the new Gilded Age. They're not even making two bones about it. And this quote-unquote trust that he put his business in? He could have access to that anytime he wants, and his family are advancing his business interests right now. Are we to believe that they never talk?

On what grounds? [The  emoluments clause] and I have deep concerns about how he was elected in the first place. … No foreign power should be interfering in our federal elections. We need free and fair elections. Russia definitely hijacked our democracy.

Republicans passed a sweeping tax bill last year. What would your ideal tax legislation look like? I was really stricken by the shenanigans that were happening in December, because CHIP funding was also part of that bill. And we need to do everything we can to take care of our children, so they were essentially holding her children hostage in order to pass that bill. But all of a sudden, the fiscal hawks disappeared. The republicans were saying we can't blow up the deficit. We need to shrink the federal government, but when they're in power … it's all the free-for-all for them. And it was essentially just a free pass for his Wall Street quote us in for himself, actually, Trump.

I would make it so that Warren Buffett's secretary does not pay a higher tax rate that Warren Buffett himself. I would not raise taxes for the middle class, and I would raise capital gains tax to make sure that Wall Street pays its fair share, because right now it's 13 percent, which is dumping on transactions, and that can be used to pay for many things, including the free college free community plan.

You live outside of the district, in Philadelphia. What would you say to voters who question whether someone outside of the district can properly represent them? My family is in the district. They live in Merion Station. … I have an apartment in Philadelphia. … My family's in the district and at this point because I'm bounced around, I often times just stay with them because they're closer to Delaware County. My first home was in Radnor, Delaware County. I grew up in Delaware County. I went to grade school there, and … I spent the most time of my life in Delaware County. So I have a very deep understanding of the needs of that community and I'm currently looking for an apartment there. …

I am in [the district]. I'm with my family in Merion Station. I spent nine to 10 years of my life in Delaware County. My family's businesses in South Philadelphia. I'm so deeply rooted in the community, and I understand its needs. I spent the most formative years of my life in Delaware County. I worked for Congressman Joe Sestak who represented Delaware County, and so I've had many dealings with constituents and people within that community, I get it.

This another question proposed by a reader: Should we be concerned about the size of the federal budget deficit? If we should, what specific revenue increases and/or spending decreases would you support? Oh absolutely, it makes me cringe. And I feel like we don't talk about it enough. Frankly, I don't remember talking about it on the campaign trail, even though I'm at a different forum with the candidates every single night. No one talks about it. I'm so glad we are talking about it because I have a deep commitment to fiscal responsibility. … People call me stingy, but I think that's the attitude that we need to bring to Washington. I think our politicians spend our federal dollars as though it's not their own money, and we need to have … public servants who treat taxpayer money as if it's their own. …

I would stop subsidizing our fossil fuel companies our oil companies. I told you about specific expenditures that I've identified, that we need to get rid of. … I know it sounds like pennies, but if we are able to go through the federal budget line by line, scouring items that don't need to be funded, I'm confident that we can find money for necessary expenditures.

Also, our expenditures overseas. I mean, so many different things. I don't think we should be funding religious institutions. I think there should be a sharp separation between church and state, although I myself am a devout Christian, I don't think that the state should be doing anything to prop up religious institutions. I don't think the government should be imposing their, their view upon other people.

What is your position on super PACs? Should they be involved in this congressional race? They should absolutely not be. … Campaign finance reform is one of the biggest reasons why I'm running. I believe that we've institutionalized bribery in our country. We talk about Russia hijacking our democracy, but special interests have hijacked our democracy long before Russia got involved. We're selling our democracy in bits and pieces, and it's not just the Republicans, but even in the Democratic Party. I was kind of turned off by the Hillary Clinton campaign. I would get a lot of emails about how we only need to pay $2,700 for a selfie with Bill Clinton or Katy Perry, and that's just not the way that we should be. We should not be selling access to our politicians like that. I think it's also hypocritical for some of my opponents to say that we need to get money out of politics on one day, and then with the other hand take money from super PACs. It's kind of inconsistent, and why should we believe that they're going to do the right thing when they're actually in office.

What percentage of your staff and advisers is women and people of color? My campaign manager is a woman. I'm so proud of that. And I made sure to appoint people of color into prominent positions in my campaign. My field director is African-American. Actually, a lot of our field staff are African-American. I'm very proud of that. And we obviously have lots of Asian-Americans, that goes without saying.

You are a former wealth manager with Morgan Stanley. What would you say to voters who say we don't need more representation of the financial industry in government? I'm not representing the financial industry at all, actually. I'm actually saying that we need to regulate Wall Street even more. I think my experience here informs my view on that matter. I see firsthand the need for Dodd-Frank and the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau], but it breaks my heart to see what makes Mick Mulvaney's doing there. We need to hold Wells Fargo accountable. We need to hold payday lenders accountable. We have a candidate in this race that is funded by payday lenders, so had not been for my experiences at a financial services institution, I wouldn't have seen the need for these rules, and we shouldn't have let Glass-Steagall … during the Clinton administration, it was unraveled … we need to bring that back. … Had it not been for my time there, I wouldn't have been so vehemently in favor of Dodd-Frank because I was exposed firsthand to how it's all about revenue generation. It's all about the bottom line. I tried to implement a recycling program there. They laughed me out of the house. They don't care. I'm one of those creepy people that go around turning off lights. I am what they call a tree-hugging progressive, but they did not care about anything other than revenue generation. I'm sure there's some good people there. I don't mean to have a blanket statement, but just from the people that I was exposed to.

This question is from a reader: How would you deal with the most pressing public health issue right now — opioids and overdose deaths? Do you support safe-injection sitesFirst of all, call for a public health emergency. Trump always said that he would, but he never actually did. We have 120 Americans dying each and every single day. And I've been … we need to decriminalize marijuana and make medical more accessible. It's a definitely a different approach. I worked for pharmaceutical companies. So I've seen firsthand how they operate, and I'm not afraid to say that we need to hold them accountable. I like what we've done vis-à-vis Purdue Pharma. We're holding them accountable because they incentivized doctors to overprescribe, and it's not just pharmaceutical companies but doctors as well. As much as I love doctors, we need to make sure that they're they're not overprescribing because of financial reasons, or they should not be as well, and also offering patients other other alternatives. … This going to sound weird, but acupuncture or medical marijuana. … Narcotics don't have to be your only approach. ….

I am in favor of safe injection sites as long as the personnel is there to give those suffering from the opioid epidemic a way out. There has to be a transition to healing. It cannot just be a safe injection site. The proper personnel have to be in place.