On June 29, 2009, in the early days of U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's run for Congress, local businessman Ron Bhalla donated $500 to the cause.
Two and a half years later, Bhalla has become the latest Republican challenger to Fleischmann, a man he groups with "lobbyists, party influence, Washington politics and self-interest."
"These people are controlling all 435 representatives. Chuck Fleischmann is no exception," Bhalla said during a 30-minute interview Tuesday. "You cannot buy me."
In at least one sense, he means it. Acknowledging that he must fight big money that's backing Fleischmann and at least one of his fellow challengers, Weston Wamp, Bhalla said he'll accept individual contributions, but promised to decline money from industry-backed political action committees, better known as PACs.
Fleischmann, who accepts individual contributions and PAC money, declined to comment Tuesday.
If elected, Bhalla said, he won't push his own political views, but those of his constituents. His plan includes using Twitter, a phone line and mass emails to gather opinions from constituents on every vote.
"I will get their feedback, and I will vote accordingly," Bhalla said.
Asked if his outreach strategy could be realistic in Congress, where some days include dozens of votes, Bhalla said he would pass information to 3rd District residents.
"They have to see if they have time or not," Bhalla said, adding that "nothing against the Constitution" would get his support.
Never having run for office, Bhalla said he has nothing personal against Fleischmann, and he isn't even sure he'll debate Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District representative. They agree on limited government, lower taxes and free enterprise principles, Bhalla said, but "the broken system" has motivated him to enter the race.
KEY ELECTION DATES
* Qualifying deadline: April 5, 2012
* Primary election: Aug. 2, 2012
* General election: Nov. 6, 2012
* Age: 63
* Education: Bachelor's degree in political science from Punjab University in India
* Occupation: President of SoMo Properties Inc.
"My salary will be determined by my constituents ... from zero to full extent," Bhalla said in an email. (Like all other House members, Fleischmann makes $174,000 annually.)
A native of India, Bhalla said he moved to the United States in 1979, first living in San Francisco and eventually settling in Chattanooga. Married with two grown sons, Bhalla is the creator and president of SoMo Properties Inc., a Hixson-based rental agency.
"This is a man of integrity," said Ken Orr, a SoMo staffer also working as a campaign volunteer for Bhalla.
His 33 years in India will give him a global perspective, Bhalla said, and bringing foreign investment to the Tennessee Valley is among his top legislative priorities.
He said he hasn't yet canvassed the 3rd District, which still hasn't undergone redistricting -- "I haven't been through the territories, but I'm sure there is a need for bridges or roads" -- and then there's the money issue.
Tapping into many of his former-congressman father's donors, 24-year-old Weston Wamp said he raised $250,000 at his first fundraiser, held last week, and Fleischmann already has $352,000 on hand, not including about $200,000 his aides say he raised during a Chattanooga fundraiser featuring House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Both are planning advertisements, direct mail and robust campaigns.
But Bhalla said his message is one that will stick.
"You cannot influence me," he said. "I am a slave to my constituents."
The other 3rd District GOP challenger is Jean Howard-Hill. Bill Taylor, a Democrat, is expected to announce his candidacy today.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...