The first of three surprises came when the 12 constituents learned they didn't have to rise as U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., entered the small conference room at Braemar Arena in Edina nor did they have to address him as "your honor."
For two-plus hours of "Common Ground" conversation, the Democratic congressman was just "Dean." In his quest for a third term, Phillips faces Republican U.S. Navy vet Tom Weiler on the ballot in November.
But this moderated conversation in a small room overlooking youth hockey practice wasn't about the campaign. Phillips gathered constituents from across the political spectrum as he has done on six previous occasions with the seemingly lofty goal of showing there's more that unites than divides them.
The session began with a catered meal of salad and sandwiches — a breaking of the bread. The facilitator was Bill Doherty, a marriage counselor who founded Braver Angels to try to break through ideological gridlock.
Phillips took a seat among the constituents who had applied to participate through his Third District newsletter. They wore tags with their first names, a designation of "red" or "blue" for their beliefs and alternated seating so they were next to someone with a different color.
"You're my heroes," Phillips said at the outset. "I mean that sincerely. You've taken time out of your nights to spend with people you don't know."
They first went around the room and described why they had come and their political views. They were young professionals, lawyers, executives and retirees. Most now live in Bloomington or Edina, but some had moved from other states and countries. Many said they volunteered because they wanted to do something positive amid the political division.
The two topics were health care and political polarization. For each, participants spent a minute gathering their thoughts then turned to their ideologically divergent neighbor for a brief discussion. Then they went around the table and described what they had shared. The Star Tribune agreed not to quote participants so they could speak openly.
The second surprise of the night was that despite their stated differences, they shared fundamental concerns about health care: cost and access.
Phillips described the discussion with his conservative partner as: "Our common ground was empathy and compassion."
On the second topic, participants expressed heartfelt yearning for more understanding and less anger. Many described feeling pained by the state of the nation's politics and division.
The third surprise: a sense of hopefulness. There were emotional expressions of support and understanding. Some exchanged phone numbers and signed up to get involved in Doherty's nonprofit.
Phillips would like to translate the ethos of that room in Edina to Congress. "I'll be trying to be part of the solution," he said. "But at the end of the day we all have to be."