Pamela Ann Berry
July 01, 2016 03:40 PM

America’s first major-party transgender candidate for the U.S. Senate won the Democratic nomination this week from the deep red state of Utah – and Misty K. Snow says her gender identity shouldn’t be an issue in November.

“People aren’t looking at that – they’re looking for somebody who will fight for healthcare and to get the minimum wage raised so they can pay their bills,” Snow, 30, of Salt Lake City, tells PEOPLE. “They want paid maternity leave and clean energy for our country. They’re more interested in that than my experience as a transgender person.”

Snow, who won Utah’s Democratic primary on June 28 and will now face Republican Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee in the general election, works as a grocery store clerk and didn’t go to college because she couldn’t afford it. Although she faces tough odds in a conservative state (recent polls show Lee leading her 51 to 37 percent), she says she’s hoping to fire up Democrats and independents.

Openly transgender since October 2014, she decided to run for office on the day before the filing deadline in March, Snow tells PEOPLE, “because the other Democratic candidate [Jonathan Swinton] was so conservative and I felt like Democrats should have a more liberal person running. Plus, I wanted to make a difference. I’ve always loved politics. I guess that I thought, ‘Why not me?’ ”

Misty K. Snow
Pamela Ann Berry

Snow modeled her campaign after Bernie Sanders‘ presidential bid, focusing on “kitchen table issues” such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, making college education free for everyone and ending corporate welfare.

“I just happen to be transgender – that’s not the reason I ran,” she says. “I’ll advocate for equality for everyone, absolutely. But that’s not the only issue I’m talking about. Win or lose, people are telling me I’m making a difference just by running and helping to break stereotypes.”

Misty K. Snow
Pamela Ann Berry

Other legislators agree.

Barack Obama didn’t build a pathway to the White House on his own – there were people like Shirley Chisholm and others who led the way,” Jim Dabakis, a gay Democratic Utah state senator, tells PEOPLE.

“This will be an uphill battle for Misty,” he says. “But she’s sending the message to Utah children that you don’t have to fit into a certain mold to be a candidate for the U.S. Senate. I think she’s going to do surprisingly well.”

Snow, who doesn’t want to reveal her birth name, says she always identified as female while growing up as the oldest of four children, but didn’t start hormone treatments to become a woman until almost two years ago.

“I was a little nervous about it, but I felt like it was the right time,” she tells PEOPLE. “It was important for me to feel comfortable about who I am.”

RELATED VIDEO: Meet Devina Keswani, the First Grader Transitioning From Male to Female

Born and raised in a low-income family, Snow has seen the struggles of lower- and middle-class families firsthand while ringing up groceries at Harmon’s in Taylorsville, Utah.

“She’s always followed her heart – she’s a brave girl,” says her mother, Linda Pace, 59, a customer relations worker at the same grocery chain. “Becoming a woman is something that she has wanted for a really long time, ever since high school. I think that by running for the Senate, she’s showing people that a person’s gender isn’t what matters. People are people. Everybody matters. And that is Misty’s message.”

“A lot of people haven’t heard of me, but maybe that’s a good thing,” Snow adds. “I’m part of the working class. I can relate to what people are going through. People feel like they’re not getting ahead. They’re worried about their families and how their children are going to make it. They’re the reason I’m doing this. I want to fight for them.”

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