Since last year, a mysterious Portland multimillionaire has poured nearly $2 million into local political campaigns and advocacy groups in pursuit of a very specific and ambitious goal: legalizing the commercial sex industry in Oregon.
Aaron Boonshoft, the 58-year-old heir to a commodities trading fortune, seems an unlikely leader for such a hot-button issue. He has no major track record of political activism and hasn’t donated to a national campaign in nearly 18 years, when he supported John Kerry’s presidential bid.
But in a little over a year, the younger Boonshoft has become the primary funder of prostitution-legalization efforts in the state, bankrolling at least two ballot initiative proposals and an army of lobbyists to push for legislation. Activists told the local press that they hoped to use these efforts as a testing ground for similar initiatives across the country.
Boonshoft, whose campaign describes him as a “client of legal, consensual sex work” and who spent over $400,000 visiting Nevada brothels between 2017 and 2019, according to divorce records, withdrew his most recent effort, a ballot initiative, earlier this month. But he said he plans to continue the fight, either through a 2024 ballot measure or legislation.
“We are committed to sex worker-led decriminalization efforts,” Boonshoft told the Willamette Week. “All Oregonians should have access to health, safety and justice. And I believe sex worker rights are at the forefront of what’s needed to create a more just, kind and compassionate world.”
The campaign has drawn detractors, and one group of anti-trafficking activists filed a challenge against Boonshoft’s now-withdrawn ballot measure. They said they support laws that will protect prostitutes from legal penalties. But they opposed Boonshoft’s proposal because it would provide similar legal protections for sex purchasers, brothels, and pimps—groups that contribute to the exploitation and abuse of women and children, according to the measure’s opponents.
While Aaron Boonshoft’s name is relatively new in Oregon politics, it is ubiquitous in Ohio’s Miami Valley, where he grew up as the son of a wealthy philanthropist. His father, Oscar Boonshoft, a retired engineer who made his fortune later in life in commodities trading, donated extensively to community causes. The family surname adorned the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton, the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University, and the Boonshoft Center for Jewish Culture and Education.
Oscar Boonshoft was described in one 1999 Dayton Daily News report as an unassuming and modest man, who compared the commodities market to a “12-dimension chess game.”
Despite his family’s wealth, the younger Boonshoft struggled to find his footing in business. In 2001, during the lows of the dot-com crash, he founded a tech startup called Oregon 3D, which specialized in animation and virtual reality. The company built an 8,000-square-foot “Center for Visualization Technologies” in Portland, with an “immersive stereoscopic display wall measuring over 12 feet wide and 6 feet high” that clients could reserve for three-dimensional simulations. But the business never quite took off, and Boonshoft dissolved it in 2007.
Boonshoft lists his occupation as “not employed” in campaign finance records. Filings from his 2019 divorce say he lives off of a “substantial inheritance” from his father, and collects no regular wages. His ex-wife, a historic house restoration expert, received over $23 million and dozens of properties during the divorce, according to divorce records.
Boonshoft’s spending on Nevada brothels also became a source of contention during the divorce, the filings show. Credit card records subpoenaed by his ex-wife showed he spent over $400,000 visiting legal brothels in the state between 2017 and 2019. His lawyers fought his wife’s efforts to subpoena additional details about the spending.
One year after the divorce, Boonshoft made a $1.2 million donation to the Sex Workers Project, a New York nonprofit group working to decriminalize prostitution, according to Willamette Week (a former writer for the newspaper was recently arrested on an unrelated charge of vandalizing a synagogue).
The Sex Workers Project hired five lobbyists to push for legislation, which led to Democratic state representative Rob Nosse filing a bill on its behalf to legalize prostitution in the state. The measure failed in committee.
Next, Boonshoft sponsored two ballot initiatives to decriminalize prostitution, and poured $525,000 into a campaign for the measures. According to reports, the campaign was spearheaded by Anne Marie Backstrom, who describes herself as a “feminist, neurodivergent, repro rights activist, queerAF mama” activist and who previously led a lobbying campaign to legalize psychedelic mushrooms in Oregon.
Both of Boonshoft’s ballot initiatives were opposed by anti-sex trafficking activists, who argued that the law change would protect pimps and sex-buyers and allow brothels in the state. Boonshoft withdrew the first initiative in January and the second earlier this month.
Both candidates lost to tough-on-crime incumbents earlier this month, in the latest sign of trouble for the “defund the police” and “defund the prisons” movements. The crime and homelessness epidemic in Portland—where the government has stopped enforcing numerous offenses—was a prominent issue in the two prosecutor races, and one incumbent featured the city as a warning in his campaign ads.