President Barack Obama intends to nominate Contreras-Sweet, a former California cabinet secretary, to be head of the Small Business Administration, according to a White House official. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Obama on Wednesday nominated community banking executive Maria Contreras-Sweet to take the reins of the Small Business Administration, nearly a year after the agency’s former administrator announced her resignation.

Contreras-Sweet, the founder and chairman of a community bank in Los Angeles, fills the final seat on the president’s second-term cabinet. She previously served as California’s secretary of the state’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, and she was the state’s first Latina to serve as a cabinet secretary.

She has extensive experience working in both the commercial lending sector as well as the private equity space (she co-founded Fortius Holdings, a venture capital firm).

More details on the selection from our colleague Julia Eilperin:

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Contreras-Sweet immigrated to the United States at age 5. Her mother worked at a chicken packaging plant in El Monte, Calif., to support Contreras-Sweet and her three brothers and two sisters.

Gary Tobin, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said Contreras-Sweet “is highly regarded in Los Angeles and throughout the state of California.”

“She is articulate and passionate about helping small businesses,” Tobin said in an interview, saying that she mentors other Latinas so they can enter the business world.

Read Eilperin’s full story here.

Reaction from the small business community was overwhelmingly positive in response to the news on Wednesday.

Beth Solomon, president of the National Association of Development Companies, an advocacy group that works hand-in-hand with the agency on lending programs, called the move “a step in the right direction” as small employers continue to claw their way back in the wake of the economic downturn.

“We are very pleased to welcome a new administrator, especially a community banker, to lead the critical work of the SBA, which has been a lifeline for America’s small businesses in these economically challenging times,” she said in an e-mail to On Small Business.

John Arensmeyer, head of the lobbying group Small Business Majority, noted that Contreras-Sweet has run her own companies, has managed a large government department in the most populous state in the country and is well respected in both the public and private sectors in California.

In addition, he said, she has “focused extensively on access to capital for a segment of the small business community that has more trouble getting capital than most, so she understands the pressing need for credit and capital of many small business owners.”

Steve Caldeira, president of the International Franchise Association, called her experience “impressive” and urged lawmakers to quickly confirm her nomination.

Contreras-Sweet will replace Jeanne Hulit, who assumed the agency’s top job when former Administrator Karen Mills left this fall for Harvard. Mills first announced plans to step down last February and had planned to stay in place until a successor was nominated, but with no one on deck, she gave up the wait in September.

In November, the White House would not confirm that it was even looking for a permanent replacement, fueling concerns from small business leaders that the president hoped to carry out a plan he had outlined in the past to consolidate the agency with other business-related departments. Those concerns grew louder when Republican lawmakers pitched a similar proposal last month in Congress.

Their bill would roll the small business agency in with the Departments of Labor and Commerce, and while it would seek to maintain the core functions of the SBA, it would leave the department with an undersecretary at the top, rather than a cabinet-level administrator.

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