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PROFILE: GOP State Senate candidate Christine Canning-Wilson, a progressive Republican

Christine Canning-Wilson says this is Massachusetts, where Republicans aren’t as hardcore as they are elsewhere. “My social values are very left. I’m very people-oriented. People are people; a soul is a soul.”

Great Barrington — State Senate candidate Christine Canning-Wilson says that, while she may be running as a Republican, she does not toe that party’s line on many issues, particularly in the social realm where she urges compassion, something hard-won from a lifetime as a heavy person, she said, and with widowhood striking soon after having two children.

“I’m not Trump by any stretch,” she jokes.

Oh, but yes, she has some “Republican” ideas about how to make things more business-friendly and spur job creation in these three rural counties, the poorest in the state, now served by State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield. And yes, she thinks firearms are overregulated. But hear this: among other surprises, Canning-Wilson believes in unions.

“I’ve always belonged to a union,” she said.

Lanesborough resident Canning-Wilson grew up in Pittsfield, the child of two educators. Her father, John “Jay” Canning, was the principal at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, and her mother was a longtime high school Latin teacher. Canning-Wilson, 47, went on to become an educator herself and got a handful of degrees and licenses, including a superintendent’s license and a master’s in foreign languages and linguistics. She taught English to Arabic speakers, and became fluent in street Arabic.

She learned a lot living and teaching in the Middle East, working in the United Arab Emirates, and finding herself in the midst of working with some not-so-savory characters. “I was this American gentile kid, 23, dumb as dirt, living among every group that was causing trouble at the time.”

She said she was able to work there so easily because no on ever thought she was American. “They all thought I was Syrian — and I’m an Irish Catholic!”

She has taught for diplomats and the KGB, to name two, but her “favorite” was teaching in the Peace Corps, she said. She almost got a job with the CIA, but that went nowhere after an interviewer made a crack about her weight and the gap between her two front teeth.

It was in the Middle East that both love and tragedy unfurled. She met her husband, a Scot, and they were married within six months. He died of leukemia at 33, when her two children were still babies.

“I realized I was going to be a single mom.” So she finished her contract there and came back to the U.S.. She worked for three urban school districts, and started two education companies in which she contracts with American embassies and ministries of education. She also does curriculum work and contract negotiations.

“It’s been an uphill battle,” she said, of building her career on top of single motherhood.

Christine Canning-Wilson, second from left, here seen protesting the “pipeline tax.” Canning-Wilson wants to reduce or eliminate a number of taxes. That stance extended to the "pipeline tax” that would have charged electric ratepayers a fee for the construction of new pipelines. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled against such a tax last August. Canning-Wilson also signed a pledge that she wouldn’t take campaign money from the fossil fuel industry.
Christine Canning-Wilson, second from left, here seen protesting the “pipeline tax.” Canning-Wilson wants to reduce or eliminate a number of taxes. That stance extended to the “pipeline tax” that would have charged electric ratepayers a fee for the construction of new pipelines. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled against such a tax last August. Canning-Wilson also signed a pledge that she wouldn’t take campaign money from the fossil fuel industry.

But her struggles and travels have informed her politics, she said. “My social values are very left. I’m very people-oriented. People are people; a soul is a soul.”

This attitude, she says, makes her unpopular with “the very conservative, who say I’m not conservative enough.”

Sometimes she has a different problem. “People say, ‘I love you, but you’re not a Democrat.’ ”

She says this is Massachusetts, where Republicans aren’t as hardcore as they are elsewhere. “I won’t discriminate. I support the transgender bill 100 percent.”

She said she has been horrified by a few head-ons with some conservative voters who say things that “perpetuate the myth that transgender and gays are molesters.”

She’s met with gay, lesbian and transgender senior groups. “I think they were finding me more progressive than they are,” she laughed.

Twice she said she has been mistaken for a man — once when stepping in to help a friend judge a transgender beauty contest in Pittsfield, and another time at a Berkshire Brigades event. After telling me this, she leaned forward in her chair, eyes wide at the revelation: “How do you really know who is a man or a woman?” she said. “If people could see everybody from the inside, I think we’d all be better human beings.”

We talk rural economic troubles, and she says there are job openings not being filled because people don’t have the training. She wants to give people tax credits for job training, and she wants better vocational education.

One of her platforms is to clean up the state’s “triple” taxing system, and lower or eliminate taxes such as the income tax, the estate tax, alcohol and tobacco taxes, as well as the rooms and meals tax that she says hurts the Berkshires tourist economy and only nets about $160,000. She also wants to root out fraud that she says costs taxpayers.

She isn’t happy about estate taxes. “Your money has already been taxed,” she said. “People scrimp and save and want to leave something for their kids, then the state gets it. It divides families.”

She also wants to make this side of the New York border more competitive. “What’s the incentive to start a business here when you can get tax breaks in New York state?”

Both she and opponent Adam Hinds agree on working toward a $15 minimum wage, though, for her, there are exceptions like age. She doesn’t want young people, for instance to “drop out of school and earn $32,500 a year.”

She is for single-payer healthcare but thinks public options should also be available.

She is also in favor of an expansion of the Supplier Diversity Program, a state program that requires diversity of contractors selected for public projects.

Old-style power brokering is not something Canning-Wilson approves of. “I don’t like good-old-boy networks that keep power and money to themselves and leave others out.”

She wants to improve public transportation, both trains and buses and both within and to and from the cities, something critical to economic development. She particularly wants an increase in night transportation for second and third shifts. “It’s not safe walking home,” she said.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) likes her; they gave her a high score. She thinks the gun laws don’t make sense and punish the wrong people. “[Nationally] 77,000 lied on their gun paperwork,” she said. “Only 300 people were actually prosecuted, and only 13 convicted. Enforcement is an issue. Too much ambiguity.”

“A Vermont felon can come into Massachusetts and hunt, but a Massachusetts felon can’t [hunt here].”

She favors a compassionate and holistic approach to the raging opioid crisis here, and she wants the pharmaceutical industry held accountable, noting the high percentage of addicts whose problems begin with a prescription.

“We need a transparent database to see how much and who is prescribing, and what the kickbacks are to the pharma industry.”

“The insurance companies really determine whether or not you can get well,” she said of limited treatment options and time. “It’s a financial scam off the backs of sick people — I have an ethical problem with that and it’s immoral.”

She’d also like to see a local medical and recreational marijuana industry create jobs and pull money into public coffers.

And she thinks a Massachusetts Turnpike bypass expansion done sensitively to open up some cut-off local transport corridors would really help the economy.

As a Republican, a minority in the Senate, she says she can get more done. “I can serve on more committees,” she said.

Her background, degrees and education licenses, she said, make education her strong suit. “You need someone in [the Senate] who’s actually studied this,” she said.

“I can look at a school budget and see where the waste is,” she added, noting that the way state funds education is “not always fair — education is inequitable by nature.”

She said south Berkshire County “will have to look at consolidation — people will lose their jobs, but you can’t bankrupt a town.”

On this topic of unsustainably rising school budgets due almost entirely to off-the-charts insurance increases, she said, “insurance companies also control schools.”

She told me she feels strongly about protecting children from hunger. Bullying in school is something she would also take a hard line on. In educating, she wants more teaching to “different learning styles.”

“I’ve been a whistleblower,” she tells me. As former chairperson of the Taconic High School English Department, Canning-Wilson sued school officials and the City of Pittsfield in 2009 for firing her, which, she said was because she had complained to officials about problems at the school that included racism, violence and drug use.

“I’ve worked for governments where people don’t question,” she said. “In Syria, the only place you’ll be able to open your mouth is in the dentist’s office.”

Canning-Wilson was “one of two Republicans” who signed a pledge to not take campaign money from companies with fossil fuel interests or from those who work for such companies.

Also, she was recently endorsed by Massachusetts Voters for Animals.

By today’s standards, none of it seems particularly “Republican.”

“My father is a left, left, left Democrat, my mother is Republican,” Canning-Wilson said. “I’m just a by-product.”

To read more about Canning-Wilson’s platform, go to her website: https://www.canning4senate.com/

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