Susan Lynn pushes state sovereignty for Tennessee
Lawmaker offers voice to libertarian outrage
State Rep. Susan Lynn says she isn't trying to fight the political battles of the Civil War again. But she isn't afraid to push to restore Tennessee's "sovereignty."
Lynn believes it's time Tennesseans reworked their relationship with the federal government. And she says one of her jobs as a state legislator is to open that dialogue, even if it means sparking confrontation with political leaders in Washington, D.C.
"For a very long time, the federal government has been growing and growing and becoming a bigger and bigger deal," Lynn said last week. "Maybe it's time to pull out the document. … Have we just allowed it and looked the other way when they have passed some laws, some acts, that are not what they're charged with doing constitutionally?"
With libertarian outrage toward the federal government seemingly on the rise — a force that is shaping everything from the debate over health-care reform to the field for this fall's elections — Lynn has become one of its foremost champions in the Tennessee legislature.
The Mt. Juliet Republican has pushed for a court challenge of Democratic-led health-care reform legislation, led a committee of lawmakers that accused the federal government of abusing its powers, pressed a U.S. senator not to support new fuel standards, and filed a bill that would ban the tagging and tracking of human beings.
And those are just a few of the causes Lynn has taken up over the past six months.
Critics have derided Lynn as, at best, an ineffective lawmaker distracted by ideological battles and, at worst, a grandstander who wants to reopen battles settled by the Civil War.
Last fall, the state Democratic Party described a Lynn-led initiative as "lunacy" that showed Lynn and other lawmakers had "embarked on the crazy train."
"There is a coterie of Republican legislators who stand off so far to the right that a moderate Republican would have a hard time including them in the party," Chip Forrester, the state Democratic Party chairman, said last week. "She certainly fits with that group."
But Lynn, who gave up her job as a small-business consultant to work as a state representative full time, says she is willing to trade short-term legislative victories if it means other lawmakers can be brought around to her way of thinking.
"With my views on free enterprise and my views on constitutional rights, I hope that I bring a lot to the conversation," Lynn said in an hourlong interview with The Tennessean last week. "I know that there's times when, maybe, things that I said one or two years ago, other legislators are saying it now. … When they hear it for the first time, it might seem ideological, but hopefully it's based in truth and other people will use that."
Rise to chairwoman
Ideologue or not, Lynn has risen to become the chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee, a body that reviews regulations, oversees state policies and can recommend creating or terminating state agencies.
Lynn also is the only Republican to have returned registration papers in the race to succeed state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, who has stated plans to run for Wilson County mayor. (Aubrey Givens, a Lebanon attorney, has registered for the Democratic primary.)
As a committee chairwoman, Lynn would already have been one of the most prominent lawmakers in the state House of Representatives this session. The position has frequently made her the prime House sponsor on bills dealing with government.
"She's very thoughtful and a good legislator," said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, who has co-sponsored eight bills with Lynn this session. "She researches very well."
Lynn also has raised her profile by inserting herself into national debates.
She and state Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, sent a letter to Attorney General Bob Cooper that urged him to consider legal action against the health-care reform bill, earning the two a mention on Fox News. And a public call she made for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander to reconsider his stance on a low-carbon fuel standard was written up by The Wall Street Journal when it appeared that Alexander had changed his mind on the matter.
Lynn, 45, was first elected to the legislature in 2002. Despite having moved to Middle Tennessee only five years before, Lynn beat sign company owner Bobby Joslin in the primary and former Mt. Juliet City Manager Danny Farmer in the general election.
"One of the big changes you've seen in the legislature is that a lot of the communities that used to be rock-bed Democratic are now electing Republicans," said Pat Nolan, a longtime legislative observer who hosts a weekly politics show on Nashville television station WTVF. "Wilson County started changing over to Republican sooner than any other."
Two years later, Lynn faced a primary challenge from Mt. Juliet real estate agent Tom Wood, who said she was not conservative enough for the 57th legislative district. Lynn won even though Beavers, who had previously represented the area, had endorsed Wood.
"Both Senator Beavers and I have very strong views, but the number of things that we have agreed on far outweigh the things that we have disagreed on," Lynn said. "I respect Senator Beavers, and I respect her record of public service, and I am excited about her bid for Wilson County mayor. I look forward to working with her in the future."
Statewide attention was focused on Lynn in the aftermath of the surprise election of Speaker Kent Williams last year. Lynn had complained to Republican leadership that Williams had made an inappropriate remark to her in 2007, and after Williams, R-Elizabethton, joined with Democrats to choose himself as speaker, the file on that complaint was released to the news media.
Lynn says now that she had not intended for the complaint to be made public and that she now has a productive working relationship with Williams, who appointed her to lead the Government Operations Committee under his power-sharing plan for the House.
"Trust me, all of that never comes up," she said.
Lynn says she believes government should act only to protect "your life, your safety, your welfare and even the morals of the community." But she places constraints on how much government should act in each of those areas.
Lynn opposes provisions of the federal health-care reform bills that would require individuals to buy health insurance, though supporters might argue that such a law would lead to longer life spans and promote the general welfare.
Lynn, who grew up Catholic in Newburgh, N.Y., but now describes herself a born-again Southern Baptist, also says that her definition of community morals is limited only to issues such as age restrictions on alcohol and the sale of wine in grocery stores. On the latter matter, Lynn says she supports letting cities and counties hold referendums.
"Right now, we leave it up to the communities to vote on whether to allow liquor stores," she said. "Why did the legislature make that law? The legislature made that law because we wanted each community to reflect their morals."
Lynn's government philosophy has sometimes led her to take up bills that have seemed out of the ordinary. This year, she has pushed a measure to ban any business or government entity from requiring people to implant a tracking device anywhere on their bodies.
Lynn said she filed the bill after hearing that businesses had marketed radio tracking devices as an alternative to security badges and a way to keep up with Alzheimer's patients. The conservative Eagle Forum and the American Civil Liberties Union support Lynn's bill.
"This is a product on the market, and it's not hard to look down the road and see that it certainly could become more and more prevalent," she said. "Maybe people start saying, to get insurance you have to have this (device)."
Last fall, Lynn chaired a joint Senate and House committee that sent a letter to lawmakers in the other 49 states urging them to support state sovereignty under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The invocation of the so-called states' rights amendment led critics to say that she was trying to reopen the political battles of the 19th century, when Southern political leaders argued that states' rights protected slavery. The argument eventually led to the concept of nullification — the idea that states could declare federal laws unenforceable within their borders.
Lynn said she has not called for nullification, but she said the thinking behind nullification had merit. She said Northern states frequently resisted enforcement of federal laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal to help slaves escape to free states.
Lynn is not alone in the legislature in expressing support for states' rights positions. A 10th Amendment resolution she sponsored last year passed the House on an 85-2 vote and the Senate unanimously.
These days, Lynn frequently finds herself one of several lawmakers sponsoring bills dealing with state sovereignty.
Earlier this month, she began to push for passing the Health Care Freedom Act, a bill that would have challenged the health insurance mandate. But before a hearing was held on that measure, the Senate passed the Tennessee Health Freedom Act, a similar measure sponsored by Beavers.
Lynn is now pushing for an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that would declare a health insurance mandate illegal in Tennessee. For her, the mandate is simply another example of the federal government overreaching.
"They want to pass state laws that are really in the purview of the states," she said. "And I just think, if they want to be state legislators, they ought to run for the state legislature."