WASHINGTON, D.C. – Billionaire businessman Ted Leonsis may own sports teams and worked his way up bagging groceries in high school to one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs but says he hasn’t forgotten the struggle of his immigrant grandparents from Greece to the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts.
That’s why, he told The Washington Post, he decided to send a message to Donald Trump and host a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton where guests will pay up to $25,000 for an “intimate performance” with 1970s singer James Taylor.
The Oct. 14 event at his home in Potomac, Maryland is designed, he said, to do more than just make a financial contribution.
“I always stayed above the fray,” Leonsis said in an interview with the Post. “But this time, there was one compelling issue for me, and it had to do with my heritage.”
He said when immigration became a divisive issue in the Presidential campaign that he had to do something to make an impact statement, remembering his grandparents coming to America and changing their family name from Leoutsakos to Leonsis and settling in one of the major Greek enclaves during the early part of the 20th Century.
“They were immigrants, but they essentially were refugees,” Leonsis told the paper.“The Yugoslavs and the Turks were overrunning Greece and they left with everything they had in a trunk and took a steamer to New York.”
His grandparents worked in mills in Lowell, a seat of the American Industrial Revolution and a city filled with textile factories and Greek coffee shops up to the 1940s. They later went to Brooklyn, where Leonsis was born, giving home some New York street cred.
It’s one reason, he said, he couldn’t sit still for Trump going after immigrants so viciously, including saying he would build a wall on the Mexican border if he became President and verbally attacking Muslims and refugees.
“All I could think of was, imagine if we had a President back then who said, ‘No you can’t come in,’” Leonsis said. “It really bothered me.”
He knows politics too, having been Mayor of Orchid, Florida and working as an intern for a Congressman when he moved to Washington on the way to building his fame and fortune, now including ownership of the Washington Wizards of the NBA, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and major real estate holdings.
He has contributed to a variety of political campaigns for both major parties, including the Presidential bids of George W. Bush, John Kerry, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama and even Bill Bradley, an NBA icon with the New York Knicks after starring at Princeton.
Leonsis told the Post he was also driven by his extensive experience in the technology world, where he served as President of AOL and an investor in many successful startups in the sector.
“Most of the great tech companies have some kind of immigrant, entrepreneurial, start-up feel about them,” he said. “Intel, Apple — Steve Jobs’ father was an immigrant. Google, now Alphabet – the founder, Sergey Brin, his father was a Russian immigrant. So the wealth, the jobs, the technology that’s created by immigrants – and we’re an immigrant nation, a start-up nation.
“So that one issue to me, I said, I have to work to make sure that we’re welcoming, that we have a place for the next Sergey Brin. Could you imagine putting a putting a wall up and stopping people from coming in? The unintended consequence of that to me was damning. So on this one, I said, ‘I’ll help all I can.’”
Leonsis came out for Clinton in June, endorsing her eagerly and said he had met her previously and is also friendly with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. But he said the fundraiser for Hillary isn’t about friendship, but a chance to impact this year’s election.