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WASHINGTON - Devry Boughner sits under a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the home of Vietnam's ambassador to the United States and pitches the virtues of open markets to a communist diplomat.
Boughner, Cargill Inc.'s chief free trade lobbyist, knows the future growth of the Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant depends on foreign markets. She also knows that trade restrictions can keep Cargill from investing and moving around the world as easily as it would like.
Cargill does business in 65 countries. It ships U.S. commodities abroad, but it also buys and ships 70 percent of Vietnam's cocoa crop and provides feed for the country's pig farms. These and other international ventures helped Cargill earn a record $2.69 billion in profits on revenue of $119.5 billion in 2011. Business is booming, and Boughner aims to keep it that way.
"The benefits of trade," she says, "far outweigh the fear."
This is the heartfelt view of a 38-year-old former Future Farmer of America, who grew up in central California's so-called "salad bowl" of vegetable fields and earned an Ivy League master's degree with a thesis titled "The Impact of Two-Tier Tariff Rate Quotas on Agriculture."
Boughner (pronounced Boof-ner) worked for the World Bank when she came to Washington out of grad school at Cornell. She jumped to the U.S. trade representative's office for a job with the arcane title of "cocoa, sugar, confectionery, ethanol and all natural sweeteners analyst." Her work attracted the attention of Deanna Okun, chairwoman of the International Trade Commission (ITC), who made her a senior economist. She settled at Cargill 7 1/2 years ago.
"Cargill," she says, "has the ability to impact change on a grand scale, much quicker than the government."
The problem is that with outsourcing and the Great Recession, not everyone shares Boughner's -- or Cargill's -- faith in free trade.
"Current trade policies are responsible for the jobs crisis," said Curtis Ellis, spokesman for the 50,000-person American Jobs Alliance. "American farmers and workers cannot survive if they are put in direct competition with the cheap labor and low-cost producers of the Third World."
Cargill spent $1.76 million on lobbying last year, but Ellis' take helps explain why Boughner still has one of the toughest jobs in Washington. Abroad, the company pushes barrier-free international partnerships to foreign countries that are often protectionist and sometimes corrupt. At home, the company promotes a global economy in a climate that virtually guarantees political pushback.
As Boughner makes her rounds promoting international open markets, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota tout their sponsorship of a bill that forces the Defense Department to use only U.S. steel in military armor. Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, D-Minn., battle to keep tariffs on imported sugar. And ads calling on President Obama to kill NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, pop up in newspapers.
"Well over 50 percent of Americans are anti trade agreements," Boughner admits. "I grapple with it on a daily basis."
On this day, Boughner has asked for a meeting with Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Quoc Cuong to firm up his commitment to the Trans Pacific Partnership, better known as TPP. It removes tariffs and other barriers to buying and selling products among the United States, Chile, Brunei, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Vietnam, Peru and Malaysia. It also lets companies buy businesses in member countries. Cargill is pushing for TPP's passage this year.
Boughner perches on the edge of a red sofa, sips tea and stares directly at Cuong as he complains about the U.S. raising tariffs on catfish.
"If that happens, it will be a death blow to the TPP," he says.
"I hear you," replies Boughner. "TPP can be a vehicle to work through this .... We want to include all products in all sectors."
Boughner helps make those kinds of deals happen, says Clayton Yeutter, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture and ex-U.S. trade representative.
"Cargill has been a very positive force in all trade negotiations in the last 25 years," Yeutter explains. "Devry carries that load. She does not take a high profile. That's not a Cargill [method of operation]."
In 2011, Cargill played a role in the passage of stalled trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Boughner has testified before Congress. She has lived in Asia for months at a time. She offers a hands-on perspective to the Trans Pacific Partnership that few others can.
"People think it's secret handshakes and winks that run this town. It's not. It's information," says Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, where Boughner serves as a vice chair. "Devry brings information."
She also brings a "very Midwestern approach -- honest and upfront," says Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn.
"She's a very good advocate for her position, but she has the ability to listen to those who think they are opposed to something and then try to think of solutions to everyone's benefit," ITC Chairwoman Okun adds.
This is why she often gets face-to-face with U.S. representatives and senators and international power brokers. She went to Minnesota last week when Cargill hosted a visit by World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy. A placard on Boughner's desk reads "Mademoiselle Devry Boughner." It came from lunch with the president of the Ivory Coast.
"Almost all of the meetings I have with U.S. businesses in Washington, D.C., I always find Devry taking part," Vietnamese Ambassador Cuong says. "We have been good partners and friends."
Along with its business investment, Cargill has built 55 schools in Vietnam and plans to build 20 more by 2015.
Still, when it comes to free trade, access to powerful people doesn't guarantee success. Opinion polls back to the mid-1990s show that Americans think free trade agreements cost U.S. jobs. A 2011 poll showed more Americans opposed than supported the Korea, Colombia and Panama free trade agreements.
Challenges overwhelm the conversation as Boughner discusses the TPP at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank that promotes trade for reasons of national security.
"What do you think the Hill's mind-set is on TPP?" Boughner asks the center's chair of international business, Meredith Broadbent.
"They haven't focused on it," answers Broadbent, whom President Obama just nominated for a seat on the International Trade Commission. "Once it gets more focus, it will be much more controversial."
Yeutter has listened to criticisms of free trade for decades.
"The benefits of trade are diffuse," he explains. "The problems of trade are felt directly. Two hundred million people benefited from NAFTA. But if you close a factory because of it, all those people blame free trade."
Boughner knows she walks a fine line. "Some people have linked the closing of facilities in their hometowns to trade," she acknowledges. "Trade is one element. But trade is not the thing that has caused these places to close. Technology played a huge role."
Making that distinction is harder with many Americans looking for jobs, but Boughner keeps driving it home.
A difficult argument
A few hours after juggling catfish for the Vietnamese, she tells Paulsen that passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership "is going to take some political will going forward."
Boughner sits in Paulsen's personal office. A full-size canoe signifying Paulsen's love of the outdoors rests on brackets high on one wall. A painting of a Minnesota lake scene hangs below it.
"I want to do whatever I can," says Paulsen, a self-described friend of free enterprise. "Cargill is a large company. How does TPP help small and medium-sized businesses?"
Boughner launches into her talking points: The United States has fallen behind the rest of the world in trade agreements. Free trade can open new markets for U.S. products and services that increase demand and create jobs here. Standardized rules for investments, conflict resolution and sanitation among TPP partners will keep things fair and open, not political and provincial. This should keep customs officials from holding Minnesota soybeans hostage in foreign ports. It should keep Cargill's meat distributors from continuously stopping production lines to meet a dozen different packaging rules.
"This is really big for Cargill," Boughner explains to Paulsen. "We handle a global food chain."
Paulsen listens quietly until she talks about letting Japan, Mexico and Canada into TPP.
"I don't want a country to come in and try to muscle a change," he says.
Paulsen also needs to explain his position to the other Minnesota businesses he deals with, some of whom are wary of global free trade.
"We'll supply facts and data," Boughner says.
They part with plans for a business roundtable in Paulsen's district and Boughner promising "to get fears and anxieties on the table."
In this election year, that's about as good as it can get for Boughner and Cargill. She leaves Paulsen's office satisfied and hurries to make a lunch date with a representative of the U.S.-Japan Business Council. The lobbying whirlwind calls to mind something Okun saw in Devry Boughner's approach a long time ago.
"Instead of 'I'm here and you're there,' it was 'Where are you trying to get to?'" Okun said. "Those are the same skills she takes to a contentious issue like working on free trade agreements."
Staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752