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Ted Leonsis explains why he’s hosting a Hillary Clinton fundraiser

Ted Leonsis speaks earlier this year during an interview in New York. (Photo by Chris Goodney/Bloomberg)

Ted Leonsis is no stranger to politics. He once served as mayor of Orchid, Fla. When he first moved to Washington, he worked as an intern for his local congressman. And as he has built his business portfolio — which includes the Washington Wizards, Capitals, among many other entities — he has contributed to a variety of political campaigns, including the presidential bids of George W. Bush, John Kerry, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama and even Bill Bradley.

But he’s never dipped his toes into the political waters quite like this. Leonsis is hosting a political fundraiser for Hillary Clinton on Friday at his Potomac home, where guests will pay up to $25,000 for an “intimate performance” from James Taylor.

“I always stayed above the fray,” Leonsis said in an interview Tuesday. “But this time, there was one compelling issue for me, and it had to do with my heritage.”

Leonsis, 59, said when immigration became such a divisive and volatile topic of this election, he felt he had to do more than cut a check. He explained that his grandparents immigrated here from Greece, changing the family name from Leoutsakos to Leonsis.

“They were immigrants, but they essentially were refugees,” Leonsis said. “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 settled in Lowell, Mass., working in mills, and his parents eventually found their way to Brooklyn, where Leonsis was born. When Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, began routinely talking on the campaign trail about building a wall along the Mexico border or banning Muslims or refugees, Leonsis couldn’t help but think of his own family background.

“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.”

Leonsis says there’s another side of the issue that’s important to consider. Leonsis made his name in the technology world, as an executive at AOL and as an investor in many successful startups.

“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 publicly endorsed Clinton’s bid of the White House in June. He said he has met the former Secretary of State and is friendly with the candidate and former President Bill Clinton, but Friday’s fundraiser isn’t a personal favor as much as a chance to have a positive impact on next month’s election.