Jennifer Brooks
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It might be the only congressional debate the Third District gets, and the Chamber of Commerce crowd was going to make the most of it.

They booed, they hissed, they cheered and they generally flouted the multipoint code of conduct the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce had optimistically posted on every table before the $60-a-plate debate Tuesday between Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and Democratic challenger Dean Phillips.

But for Paul Alan Fogelberg, one of 256 people who snagged a ticket to the debate, the choice before him was deathly serious, and neither candidate told him what he was hoping to hear.

In the space of a single short debate, no candidate really could.

“I have a terminal illness,” said Fogelberg, who’s met with both candidates to urge more research funding for pulmonary fibrosis, the rare, chronic and progressive lung disease from which he suffers. “My health care costs are through the roof. And neither one of them said anything to me about how they’re going to address my ability to pay my doctors next month. In this kind of a forum, there’s too many one-liners and platitudes.”

If there’s another debate — and both candidates now say they’re willing to go a few more rounds — maybe there will be time to talk about health care policy in depth, or immigration policy, or jobs. Who knows, the audience might get to ask a few questions of their own.

But when the sun rose on Tuesday, most in the district thought this debate was the only one they were going to get — and it wasn’t even being held in the Third District. The TwinWest Chamber of Commerce hosts a candidate debate every election year, and charges nonmembers the $60 a head for lunch and a show.

This year, 60 of the heads in the audience got in free thanks to Michael Sweeney, a businessman, TwinWest chamber member and past president of Steinway Musical Instruments. He bought dozens of tickets for the event and offered them up for free, first-come, first-serve, online.

“It seemed like a $60 fee would be a real burden for a lot of citizens, and the idea that that fee would stop people who had energy and interest from learning more about the two candidates, it was disturbing,” said Sweeney, who gave away 60 tickets in a matter of hours and had to turn away hundreds of other requests. “It’s a tense moment in America and these elections matter significantly. Giving people who have to make those choices the access to the candidates was what I was hoping to do.”

Sweeney, a former Star Tribune board chairman, backs Phillips in the race, but gave away tickets to everyone who asked. Lakeville City Councilman Luke Hellier scored one of Sweeney’s tickets and drove in from the Second District to support Paulsen, his former boss.

“This is a premier debate. I’m here to watch Erik Paulsen share what he’s been doing well,” he said.

The battle for the Third is one of the most closely watched in the nation. Now, both candidates swear, there will be more to watch. During the debate, both said they’d be willing to schedule more meetings like this. Maybe they’ll meet in the district next time. Maybe they’ll meet in the evening or on a weekend so people with day jobs can come.

Maybe you’ll be able to get into the next debate for free.

“This is exclusive. You have to pay, it’s in the middle of the workday, it’s so far the only debate that they’ve scheduled,” said Laurie Wolfe, co-chair of Indivisible MN03, who estimated about 20 members of her group managed to get into the event past “the paywall.” Others stood outside the Hilton, waving signs calling for free and open debates. “We want access.”

Weary TwinWest Chamber officials, meanwhile, looked back at the event as a mixed success. The chamber hosts these candidate forums every election, with the $60 ticket price — $35 for members — going to offset the price of the meal that comes with the political show. This year, with no other debates on the horizon, the atmosphere in the room was more charged than usual.

“We did a very big debate internally on whether we should open this up to nonmembers,” said chamber president Shannon Full. Eventually, members agreed to offer tickets to anyone in the public who could get an hour off in the middle of the workday and could afford the $60 price of a nonmember ticket.

“We believe in public discourse and we believe in decorum,” Full said. In the end, the debate featured rather more discourse than decorum. “I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that people have lost respect for others that wanted to hear from both candidates. … The booing and hissing was really unfortunate.”

If and when Paulsen and Phillips schedule another debate, the Star Tribune will let you know.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks