In many ways, Misty Snow, 31, is an ideal candidate to displace Utah's incumbent Republican Senator, Mike Lee, in this year's election. Misty's campaign platform, which focuses heavily on paid maternity leave and women's reproductive rights, is family-friendly in a state that has more children per capita than any other in the nation. She is of the people, for the people: Misty currently works as a cashier at Harmons grocery store in Taylorsville, Utah. And she is young and progressive—but not a blue-bleeding hardline liberal—in a state that has historically voted red.
"Women's issues matter to me, and I'm a working class person," says Misty. "We don't have a representative democracy anymore, and the only way to fix that is to elect people who really understand the issues that matter to Utahans."
But there is something else that sets her apart from her colleagues, and it could be her greatest challenge in the election this November: Misty is the first-ever transgender candidate from a major political party to be nominated for a seat in the US Senate––and Utah has a particularly fraught relationship with the LGBT community.
Misty Snow was born in Salt Lake City in 1985. Her father died when she was three years old, leaving Misty's mother to raise her and her younger brother as a single parent. Like the majority of Utah's population, Misty grew up Mormon, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).
At one time, says Misty, "[The church] was the only place I ever felt like I belonged." But beginning at a young age, she found herself at odds with certain key beliefs of Mormonism. The faith is historically tough on the topic of homosexuality and the LGBT community, teaching that what they call "same-sex attraction" is an immoral yet curable condition.
"When I was 13, Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian, and there was a long speech in my church about how bad of a person she was," says Misty between bites of a turkey sandwich on white bread––hold the tomatoes and the onions––at Feldman's, Salt Lake City's only semi-authentic Jewish delicatessen. "That bothered me, so I stopped going. I didn't feel like I belonged anymore... I didn't feel comfortable."
This crisis of faith was compounded by the rejection she had already begun to face at home, having come out as transgender to a family that was less than accepting. "My mom was really horrible about it," she recalls. "She said, 'You know, if you do this, you'll get a lot of one-night stands, but nobody will ever love you.'" So Misty waited. She spent much of her twenties at home, in her bedroom at her mother's house, where she still lives, browsing blogs and YouTube channels and connecting with people online.
But she struggled with her family's inability to accept her, and eventually she reached a breaking point. "I was at the point where it's either I kill myself, or I transition," she says. "I came close. I did buy a rope one time; I was going to hang myself." Misty was 29 at the time. She called Harmons to tell them she wasn't going to be coming in the next day, and after talking to her manager she started to feel a bit better. She changed her mind, and soon after, she began her transition.
It was during this time that Misty began to take a serious interest in politics as well. But it wasn't until Ralph Nader's run in 2008, she says, that her political point of view truly began to take shape: "He talked about things like single-payer health care, a living wage, and ending corporate wealth and corporate personhood... things I'd never heard of before." These issues resonated; she still sees Nader as her political role model.
That summer, Misty attended a rally for Nader in Salt Lake City. She still remembers it clearly: It was July of 2008, and former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, of whom Misty is also a big fan, introduced and endorsed the Independent candidate. Misty voted for Nader in 2008, she tells me—it was her first time voting in a presidential election. In 2012, the year Obama won his second term, she voted for Rocky Anderson, who campaigned as the Justice Party nominee.
In fact, Misty only registered as a Democrat this year. "When I decided I'm gonna run for office, I'm like, 'I better be a registered Democrat,' because the Utah Democratic Party is actually an open party." But her politics deviate from the typical Democratic platform. She voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries earlier this year, and is––rather shockingly, for someone seeking the Democratic vote––still undecided about who to vote for in the general election this November.
"Hillary Clinton is kinda the best on the ballot," she concedes, after rattling off a list of Democrats and Independents whom she likes even less. "At this point there isn't really an alternative; it's not like there's a Rocky Anderson or a Ralph Nader, who's actually inspiring."
Her lack of enthusiasm for Hillary is something she feels her fellow party members in the state share. "There's a lot of divisions within the Utah Democratic Party," she says. "That has been one of the biggest challenges I've had, because I need all of them to vote for me."
What she lacks in political experience and party allegiance, she makes up for in single-minded focus on the task at hand. Throughout our lunch, Misty quotes back the precise margins and percentages and quadruple-digit vote counts for every poll and primary this year, with a savant-like precision.
"She's brilliant with numbers," says Jeff Stern, Misty's press and media director.
"I like to analyze statistics," Misty says. "I read a lot, pay a lot of attention; I probably spend 20 to 30 hours a week reading up on current events online." She likes the Young Turks, the Real News Network, and Acronym TV, among others.
"Misty has done a great job of reaching the people who are looking for a new candidate," Peter Corroon, the chair of the Utah Democratic Party, tells me later that night at the UDP's Summer Social, where new candidates and incumbents gathered to network over wine and charcuterie at a picturesque exotic plant and garden store, among rows and rows of potted orchids.
"Utah is a very strong Republican state, and a Democratic candidate has to work twice as hard and is always suspect, while a Republican gets a free pass. It is helpful to send the message to Utahans that anyone can speak to the important issues," he says—no matter their age, faith, or gender identity.
"After I transitioned, I started to make a couple of friends at work. I have three different women at work who I go to lunch with every week––all three of them are very LDS," Misty says. They can't believe she's a Democrat. "My circle of friends is, like, churchy Mormon girls."
Misty is counting on the millennial Mormons and the working class vote to be a bridge between the two parties. "Mormon millennials are more liberal on every issue," she says. "I'm a millennial, and I try to make the case that, if I was elected to the US Senate, I'd be the first millennial... I'd be the voice of my generation."
Also in attendance at the Summer Social are Mike Weinholtz—the Democrat running for governor, who has been a big supporter of Misty from the beginning, carving out a section of his own campaign headquarters for her and her team, complete with a designated gender-inclusive restroom and rainbow pride ribbons unfurling from a corner cubicle—and his running mate Lieutenant Governor Kim Bowman, as well as Steve Tryon, an environmentalist seeking to unseat Jason Chaffetz in the congressional election. Everyone at the mixer seems to be quite taken with Misty, who mingles with the crowd in a Hillary-esque black pantsuit and red polka dot blouse, a pearl bracelet on her left wrist.
Due in part to the the intense media interest in her campaign, she has become the most recognizable Utah Democratic candidate running for election this year. "A lot of people run for office for fame, or as a way to build their career," Misty tells me. "I don't care about any of that—I just ran because I care about these issues."
Misty says her mother is more supportive now that she's campaigning for office. "She says she's proud of me," Misty says. "She says I've done something that few people have done––and not a bad thing, a good thing."