Basketball enthusiast enters politics
January 11, 2018
Leisa Washington clearly remembers the day back in 1995 that new Progressive Conservative party leader Mike Harris slashed welfare rates 21.6 per cent which meant that a single mother with one child received $957 monthly in social assistance.
That decision impacted Olive Washington who suffered from bipolar schizophrenia and was raising her children in Swansea Mews, a Toronto Community Housing neighbourhood .
“That change meant we were very limited in the amount of groceries, bus tickets, clothing and basic necessities that we needed,” recounted Washington, the youngest of four siblings. “We depended on that allowance. Mom told us when we grew up, we must vote for the Liberals. When I asked her what that meant, she said that was the party for the people.”
Nearly three decades later after been a staunch Liberal backer, Washington -- Canada’s first Women’s National Basketball Association and National Basketball Association female agent -- is the party’s candidate in Whitby for the next provincial elections scheduled to be held in June.
“My children are the reasons I have made challenging decisions, including this one, throughout my journey,” said Washington. “I have always worked two jobs to ensure they got what they needed. They are why I am running because I want every child to have a fair shot at success. I have succeeded because of a compassionate government working to ensure I had a fair chance to get ahead and, in turn, my children had a better start to life than I did. I believe strongly in ensuring everyone can succeed. A caring government is a part of that success.”
Her daughter, Dakota Whyte, graduated from the University of Wisconsin last year and split eight months playing professional basketball in Sweden and Greece before returning home to take up a job as a product specialist with Nike. Cameron Ramage graduates next year from Wesley Christian High School in Kentucky where he’s a point guard on the basketball team.
A Durham resident for the last 11 years, Washington is the manager of member services at the Abilities Centre in Whitby which is an innovative community hub where people of all ages and abilities enrich their lives by engaging in social, health and cultural programs.
“I believe in a strong and thriving community where children, youth, families, single persons and seniors can work, grow and play in the city they love and where all the opportunities exist free of barriers,” she said.
Washington is confident that her campaign platform will appeal to voters.
“I want to see better housing for seniors and those in need,” she noted. “We need economic growth for people who want to work near their homes and our downtown to be revitalized into an employment hub where small businesses can grow and thrive. We also need to increase our child care spaces and continue to improve our schools, including French Immersion. Getting traffic moving by investing in the GO train system, enhancing our roads and upgrading infrastructure where needed are also priorities. Whitby is a sports town and I want to create opportunities for athlete of all ages and abilities.”
Media practitioner Camille Dundas nominated Washington as the Liberal candidate.
“Walk into any grocery store or restaurant here and you are made to feel like family,” said Dundas. “But like any place, there are downsides. It’s near to impossible to find an affordable living space or an older person on a fixed income. The wait list is six years long. Public transportation is pretty slow and unreliable and there is concern about the increase in violent crime. One person can’t solve all of these problems. Whitby needs someone who actually cares enough and wants to make its citizens a priority. That person is Leisa Washington.”
They met for the first time at a SisterTalk event hosted in October 2016 by Karlyn Percil.
“It was a very emotional day for all of us as we shared our stories of pain and regret,” said Dundas. “Though Leisa has one of the harrowing stories growing up as a child that I have heard, she emerged that day as a beacon of strength. Every time she spoke, we hung on to her every word because she was so intentional with everything she said. She probably has no idea how much she impacted us that day. What struck me the most about Leisa is her honesty, humility and selflessness.”
Centre for Social Innovation board chair and lawyer Marie Molinor, who was in the audience at the SisterTalk event, encouraged Washington to take a shot at politics.
“We had never met before,” said Molinor who is the Department of Canadian Heritage regional executive director for the Ontario region. “I work with a number of politicians, both provincially and federally, and I have a pretty broad experience around the kind of personality and qualities that politicians who are really able to communicate well require and demonstrate. There was something about Leisa’s storytelling, her commitment to her community, her work, her family and some of the challenges that she faced that really compelled me to tell her that if she has any interest in doing this, I will be more than happy to give her my experience from a public servant perspective of how hard politicians work and how difficult it is to work on the inside to get things done. She has had such poise and experience pushing forward on the basketball front and already had several networks and give some thought to this responsibility, but hadn’t let it take shape because she didn’t know who to talk to.”
Incumbent Member of Provincial Parliament Lorne Coe and labour & human rights lawyer Niki Lundquist are the Conservative and New Democratic Party (NDP) candidates.
A graduate of West Toronto Collegiate Institute after spending a year at Runnymede, Washington has a firm grasp of what it means to provide the best opportunity for young people to succeed. She established Camda Sports Foundation which is a charitable program that provides financial assistance for youth participants in healthy recreation endeavours. The organization helps cover travel, training and registration costs for athletes in addition to some travel expenses for families to accompany their children and watch them play.
Washington spent nearly seven years at the Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation. As the Great Escapes coordinator, she managed programs and events for terminally ill children and their families and worked in conjunction with the Toronto Raptors to help provide live-game experiences for children.
Prior to joining the Abilities Centre in 2012, she was a client relations manager at Wild Water Kingdom.