Head of OPIC says it's here to stay

Head of OPIC says it's here to stay
© Greg Nash

Ray Washburne is hitting the ground running in his new job leading the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which only a handful of months ago faced termination under President Trump’s proposed budget.

The 57-year-old Dallas businessman and former powerhouse Republican fundraiser — confirmed by the Senate in early August to helm the obscure, 46-year-old agency — is dispelling any lingering concerns that the Trump administration will shutter it.

“I have the full support of the White House,” Washburne said during a recent interview in his OPIC office, which overlooks downtown Washington.

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In fact, support for the agency is building all along Pennsylvania Avenue, from Capitol Hill to the White House, he added.

“I feel very comfortable it’s going to be here.”

Plus, Washburne argues, if the agency was going to shut down, why would the White House put him through the substantial effort required of the confirmation process, only to yank funding down the road?

Trump’s budget blueprint put OPIC on the chopping block — calling for a wind-down and eventual elimination amid criticism from conservative Republicans that the agency represents crony capitalism, a claim Washburne strongly rejects.

He even faced questions about the agency’s demise during his confirmation hearings in July before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The administration understands what OPIC can accomplish,” he told the panel at the time. “I wouldn’t have taken this job unless we had good confirmation within the administration that OPIC is viable and going to stay.”

Instead, Washburne says, Senate budget legislation would provide the agency with $79 million for fiscal 2018, a boost from $68 million this year, a sign that his frequent meetings on Capitol Hill hawking its merits are paying off.

Washburne says his funding is secure and the agency is fully staffed and ready to lend.

The White House declined The Hill’s request for comment.

Washburne describes OPIC as a “lean-in” lender, providing funds for projects in developing countries where traditional U.S. banks and insurance companies are wary to tread.

“It’s about doing free enterprise in these countries that need it most,” he said.

The Southern Methodist University graduate is moving full steam ahead to tackle an ambitious agenda, which has a geographical focus and a global reach.

Two weeks into his tenure he toured Kazakhstan and Ukraine, checking in on several possible major projects, including a wind farm that could boost energy independence in southeastern Ukraine.

Washburne is planning trips to other prime targets on OPIC’s list, such as Central America, where he said there is an urgent need for projects that create jobs.

He plans to gradually work his way around to other regions, including the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The savvy Texas-born Washburne may have been destined to land a position in the Trump administration.

After Trump locked up the Republican nomination, Washburne jumped in to help stock up campaign coffers following a stint as the finance manager for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s own GOP primary bid.

He also served as an adviser during Trump’s transition.

Before joining Christie’s campaign, Washburne spent a couple of years as the national finance chairman for the Republican National Committee under former Chairman Reince Priebus, Trump’s first White House chief of staff.

Prior to that, he was a major bundler for former President George W. Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004.

Washburne’s name was floated for several Cabinet slots, but he had his eye on OPIC, an agency where he could harness his vast business knowledge, which runs the gamut from running restaurants and starting banks to building manufacturing plants, shopping centers and apartment buildings.

And for Washburne, the job is a perfect fit.

“The reason I took this job — I had opportunities for other positions — this is the one that I wanted because I knew with my relationships I could do a lot with it, and my background in business,” he said. 

“It’s right in the middle of what I spent my whole life doing,” he added.

“I’m 57. I’ve spent my whole life in business,” he said. “I’ve never been in government; I’ve never run for office. It’s fun being up here.”

To get the agency’s funds flowing, Washburne is tapping into his network of deep Washington connections to drum up business and find not only interested borrowers, but also the right projects.

“In this job, I realize the relationships I’ve built over the last 20 to 25 years of being involved have really paid a lot dividends, whether it’s people up on the Hill both in the House and Senate or at the White House or in different agencies or ambassadors,” he said.

“It’s made it very helpful as we’re trying to describe the brand,” he said.

“I didn’t show up in town not knowing anybody, so it’s very easy. My schedule’s filled.”

Washburne is head of Charter Holdings, a real estate investment firm, and he owns 48 mostly Texas-based restaurants, with 3,000 employees who served 8 million people last year — after starting out with one 10-table restaurant that employed fewer than a dozen people.

The attraction to the OPIC job also grew from his extensive global travels and his personal involvement in building an orphanage in Africa that serves about 700 children a year, he said.

“I’ve seen in Africa, in Zambia, exactly what development can do, and also I understand that just pure foreign aid isn’t going to get accomplished what these countries need, like sustainable jobs,” Washburne said.

Under its new chief, OPIC is focusing on regional efforts across several major areas, with a heavy emphasis on the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which battle extremely high unemployment.

“The populations are small there, so a little bit of money can go a long way,” he said. “But we have to be sure the money is going to the right thing.”

Speaking of money, the agency sent a profit of $239 million to the Treasury in 2016 — a 3-to-1 return on investment — created thousands of jobs in districts all over the United States and has reported a less than 1 percent default rate since it was founded.

“How do you eliminate something that has current business in 162 countries?” Washburne asked.

“It’s got a very bright future.”