Progressive donor pours big money into Oregon’s two contested races for district attorney

Within weeks, a wealthy Portlander named Aaron Boonshoft, largely unknown in progressive political circles, became the biggest funder of challengers hoping to unseat district attorneys in Washington and Marion counties.

In April, Boonshoft made two campaign contributions totaling $225,000 to Brian Decker, a public defender who is running on a progressive platform to unseat Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton. He also donated $50,000 to Spencer Todd, also a public defender, against Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson. Barton and Clarkson are co-chiefs of the Oregon District Attorneys Association; both are established prosecutors with significant political influence. Decker and Todd aren’t as well known.

Marion County Courthouse in Salem, Oregon on May 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

Even less known is the multi-million dollar donation to their campaigns and what lies behind Boonshoft’s new interest in local politics.

“I am passionate about defending human rights,” Boonshoft said in a written statement to the OPB. “I believe we can create a world in which health, safety and justice are accessible to all. And that a crucial step is the reform of our criminal justice system.

Boonshoft declined an interview request.

In addition to spending $275,000 to overthrow two prosecutors running a tough-on-crime platform, Boonshoft is the lead petitioner for a ballot measure that would decriminalize, but not legalize, sex work in Oregon. . It is unclear whether there is enough momentum to propel him onto the November ballot.

Last year, Willamette Week reported that Boonshoft had donated $1.2 million to the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Worker Project, a New York-based legal nonprofit “advocating for human rights.” rights of sex workers by destigmatizing and decriminalizing people in the sex trade through free legal services, education, research and policy advocacy. Through a spokesperson, Boonshoft told the OPB that he was “also a supporter of anti-trafficking efforts.” He donated $50,000 last year to organizations that fight human trafficking.

Boonshoft is the son of a wealthy commodities trader from Ohio, according to Willamette Week. Divorce records give an idea of ​​his wealth; his ex-wife received tens of millions of dollars and numerous properties. Campaign finance records show Boonshoft donated about $52,000 in 2004, much of it to Democratic parties outside of Oregon. Until last month, he had never made direct political contributions to candidates in Oregon’s local races.

“I was inspired to get involved with Brian Decker’s campaign when I heard the story of women being assaulted at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, and the current district attorney has not prosecuted,” reads -on in Boonshoft’s statement. “I gave money and I gave my time for the campaign.”

In March, the OPB reported on Tony Klein, a Coffee Creek nurse whom at least 27 women have accused of sexually assaulting them or making inappropriate comments. The Washington County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Klein in 2018, citing conflicting stories from the incarcerated women.

The US Department of Justice recently released a 25-count indictment charging Klein with sexually assaulting 12 women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Federal prosecutors alleged that Klein deprived the women of their right not to face cruel and unusual punishment, a protection afforded by the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Decker seized on the Klein case, calling it a key failure of Barton’s tenure.

In an interview with the OPB on Tuesday, Barton said he was “very happy” that the US Department of Justice was able to press charges against Klein.

“Their charges are based on evidence we didn’t have in the DA four years ago, and that includes an FBI investigation and deposition testimony,” Barton told the OPB. “I know from speaking to my contacts at the US Attorney’s Office that they would not have been able to press charges based on the evidence we had, which is part of why further investigation took place. after we review the case.”

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, citing the open case.

Barton said voters should be wary of what he thinks are the motives behind Boonshoft’s donations.

“When you have people donating to campaigns, people need to be aware of that so they can understand what, if any, pledges or special treatment or treatment someone might receive,” said Barton at OPB. “Mr. Boonshoft is someone who takes an extremist or fringe position of decriminalizing prostitution and pimping, which would make our community less safe. I think by donating $275,000 to him for two DA races, it should raise red flags for some people.

Barton’s biggest campaign contribution to date was $100,000 from Nike co-founder Phil Knight in December. Nike’s global headquarters reside in Washington County.

Decker’s campaign said it was surprised by Boonshoft’s reach and the size of the donations. Before the donations, Decker and Boonshoft met at a cafe.

“They talked about the need for reform in the Washington County criminal justice system,” said Sonny Mehta, Decker’s campaign manager.

Mehta said the two did not discuss sex work or its decriminalization.

“Brian would only take a position on reform after reviewing the specific policies of the legislation, but believes that all public safety laws should seek to protect vulnerable people from harm,” Mehta said.

He said the donations had come in handy in a busy election cycle.

While it’s less than the Washington County attorney’s race, Boonshoft’s $50,000 donation to Marion County is also the largest financial contribution in the district attorney’s race.

Prior to the donation, Boonshoft met Todd. During their meeting, Boonshoft did not discuss any political initiatives, according to Nathaniel Applefield, campaign consultant for Todd’s campaign.

Clarkson, the Marion County District Attorney, said she finds it “strange that there is a man who wants to promote the protection of sex workers.” Not only did Clarkson question Boonshoft’s motives, she said he was targeting the only two disputed district attorney races in the state.

“The fact that this guy funds DA campaigns — DAs who have a lot of decision-making power over how to intervene in these kinds of criminal cases — he’s doing it on purpose,” Clarkson said. “It’s absolutely a calculated move on his part.”

Ballots for the May 17 primary must be postmarked or returned to a drop-off site by 8 p.m.

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