IT SEEMED like a good idea at the time. But then the day arrived, and my gut jumped so badly I was popping Tums like they were M&Ms.

Where was my head, two weeks before, when I invited Clinton, Trump and third-party voters to a sit-down on Nov. 1 at the Daily News?

We hadn't hired extra security. There was no metal detector at the entrance to the room where piles of deli sandwiches and chips awaited the participants.

Maybe the younger guys on the sports desk could help if the pastrami and Herr's went flying.

The goal had been to see if disparate voters - by speaking from the heart and listening to others do the same - could find common ground in a presidential-election season that has felt like a cage match, but less loving.

My partners in crime were Daily News deputy managing editor Michelle Bjork; senior editor Becky Batcha; and Sharon Browning, the founder of JustListening.net, a local communications consultancy.

We planned to ask participants questions about their values and beliefs. Then we'd ask: If your candidate wins, what must he or she do to reunite a country fractured by the fear, rage, disillusionment and contempt of this brutal election season?

As the date approached, more women accused Trump of groping, and the FBI said more emails were playing tag on Clinton's server. Then SEPTA called a strike on the very day we were to meet, stabbing pins into everyone's last nerves.

When five of the 24 invitees bowed out, the evening looked doomed.

But then the remaining 19 strangers arrived in excited thickets. They had walked, pedaled or driven through gridlocked traffic from all over the Delaware Valley to be part of a discussion they said was too important to miss.

They were Democrat, Republican and Independent, ages 26 to 77, multi-ethnic, white- blue- and pink-collared, gay and straight which meant we'd get a lot of viewpoints.

A few came way early for the 6 p.m. start time, fearful the strike would otherwise make them late. Late-comers laughingly compared tales of jammed intersections and filled parking garages.

"I made it!" said outreach worker Zing Thluai, 37, after racing in from South Philly. She became an American citizen in July and will soon vote for the first time. "I'm so glad I'm here!"

And suddenly, the evening felt much better. Like we were onto something.

Sharon Browning broke participants into seven groups of twos and threes. Each was given eight questions to answer, one at a time. Each member had two minutes to speak without interruption, followed by 30 seconds of silence. The next member followed suit. Finally, the group discussed their answers, and then with the participants at large.

Which sounds annoying. But the structure got everyone focused, and the results were more thoughtful than anything possible in a free-for-all group gab.

"Why is it important for you to be here?" went the first question.

Justine Jou, 28, a truancy case supervisor, talked about wanting to discuss her beliefs without being judged. Albert Lopez, 56, a communications consultant, was hopeful of finding shared solutions beyond the election. And many wanted to get beyond the alienation they felt from those in an opposite party.

"I would like to talk to someone who is willing to discuss the principles behind the slogans," said retired physician Dick Whittington, 65. "I am most distressed to see each party try to delegitimize the opposition."

For Kate Williamson, 55, the divide was jarring.

"I've been struggling with reconciling how some people I know and love are voting," said Williamson, an HR executive. I've never felt like that about politics before, like who you're voting for is a character question. I hate that I've been feeling that way."

Browning then asked, "As Americans, we share some common values and priorities. Whom do you care most about in your life? What is your American dream for them?"

The obvious answer - family - was broadened by many to include those whose dreams are impacted by outside forces.

"We were talking about the [Oct. 18] shooting in Rittenhouse Square and how the city responded to it with swarms of cops," said Mike Torres, 50, a laborer. "But there are people getting shot in poor neighborhoods every day and the response isn't the same. Their families have dreams for them, too."

"People say that in poor neighborhoods, the crime is your fault, and sometimes it is," added Fred Williams, 55, co-owner of a home-care business. "But not always. What we do know is that the city's powers-that-be won't let crime happen in Rittenhouse. Where is the fairness in that?"

"Fairness" was the answer of many when asked to name their most cherished American value. Most felt proud to live in a country whose Constitution and Bill of Rights support fairness for all.

"The Founding Fathers believed that everyone was created equal," Whittington said, "but that did not include those without property, women and those of African descent."

Tom Paine Cronin, 73, a retired union president, cherished the right to lobby and nonviolently protest government and corporate actions and policies that hurt or discriminate against poor and working class people.

"I've lost count of the times I've been arrested or detained, and I'm proud of all those times," he said. "Whatever hurt or pain I've suffered, I cherish the right to be able to take those actions."

Milt McGriff, 77, a retired journalist and military vet, spoke of fighting for his country yet being denied a beer when, upon discharge from the Army, he entered a bar where blacks were refused service.

"I looked down at my uniform and thought, 'I guess I'm not an American then,' " said McGriff. He didn't feel like an American until 9/11, when the country was united in grief.

"I finally felt like my skin color didn't matter," he said.

I could go on for pages about all that was discussed by the evening's 19 brave, gracious and eager participants.

About the worry of academic adviser Jazmyn Curry, 30, that student debt will keep her from achieving the American dream. About how retired Naval Commander Joe Eastman, 65, uses the Navy code of "Honor, Courage and Commitment" as his personal North Star. How Tom Flaherty, 26, a development officer, believes we need to stop demonizing our elected officials and talk to them as openly and respectfully as we were talking among ourselves.

I apologize that there's not room enough to relate them all. Because this was one very wise group of Americans - especially when it came to this final question: "If your candidate wins, what do you suggest that he/she do in order to bring the country together? How can you help?"

By now, the new friends felt a renewed belief in American decency and our shared humanity - and, for some, a realization that they had more faith in each other than in those who battle for our votes.

They also felt a sobering conviction that Americans must start listening to each other with kindness and respect through difficult conversations about our most deeply felt hopes for ourselves and those we love.

How in the world would a new president signal that he or she was up to such a shift - especially when social media's instant gratification/denigration has replaced civility and respect?

Mike Torres leapt to his feet.

"Whoever wins should be the bigger person and apologize to his or her opponent and to the world for such a hateful election," he said. "It would signal to everyone that they know how bad it got and that it was wrong."

Added Darisha Miller, 44, a public-relations professional, "Whoever wins needs to show a lot of humility."

Joe Eastman was more interested in hearing the losing candidate's concession speech.

"Whatever he or she says will set the tone for the rest of the country," he said.

Whittington suggested that the new president have lunch with the Speaker of the House and its majority and minority leaders. The next week, he should lunch with the majority and minority leaders in the Senate. And then repeat the process.

"It would let them talk policy and politics and get to know each other," he said. As for himself, "I will volunteer for a congressman in another party, to do something in a nonpartisan position."

Stay-at-home mom Theresa Prasalowicz, 45, thinks becoming better involved in our communities will help us heal. Jennifer Morales-Torres, a nonprofit executive, thinks just being kinder to one another will mend the wounds of this election.

Speaking for her group, Kate Williamson reminded us how Abraham Lincoln built a team of rivals and stitched them back together again. This is the perfect time for that, she said.

"But you have to not care about being re-elected. You have to not care about your party getting upset. You have to not care about all the things they seem to care about.

"In the meantime," she continued, "we have a lot more faith in each other than in politicians."

And that would have wrapped up the night. Except then everyone wanted to take selfies with one another, and friend each other on Facebook. And hug.

Yes, there were hugs.

"I'm not even sure how everyone in this room is voting," said an amazed Eastman, a Trump supporter who had come prepared to debate the candidate's policies. Instead, he wound up having far more important conversations with people he never would have expected to connect with so thoroughly.

"This was one of the most powerful civics lessons I've ever sat through," he said happily. "I think more people should do it."

Many thanks to to the intrepid group for their time.

Now go vote, everybody. And remember: Be kind.

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

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