Maria Contreras-Sweet testifies during her nomination hearing before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee on Capitol Hill, February 12, 2013. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It took more than a year, but the Small Business Administration finally has a permanent leader back at the helm.

The Senate on Thursday easily confirmed Maria Contreras-Sweet as the agency’s new administrator in a voice vote, handing the reins to the former banking executive and public official from Los Angeles. President Obama nominated Contreras-Sweet to the post back in January, filling the last remaining vacancy on his second-term cabinet.

Contreras-Sweet is the founder of both ProAmérica Bank, a community bank specializing in small-business loans in southern California, and venture capital firm Fortius Holdings. She previously served as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, where she managed several public investment funds aimed at economic growth and infrastructure improvement.

Originally from Mexico, Contreras-Sweet moved to the United States when she was 5 years old. During her career, she has made a point of supporting minority- and immigrant-owned businesses — firms that are often underserved by traditional lenders and investors.

During her confirmation hearing before a Senate panel last month, she pledged to use her authority atop the agency to “make sure the Small Business Administration is an even more significant force in expanding opportunities for all Americans, ensuring the economic strength of our country and the global economy.”

Contreras-Sweet’s confirmation concludes a year-long search that began when former SBA chief Karen Mills announced plans to resign last February. She had planned to stay in place until a successor was nominated, but with no one on deck, she left in September.

In the past seven months, the agency has had two temporary acting administrators. In the leadup to the final vote Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who last month took over as head of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, asked her colleagues to put an end to the longstanding vacancy.

“Everything from Chobani yogurt, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Federal Express have all been small businesses benefiting from the SBA,” Cantwell said. “To have somebody like Maria Contreras-Sweet to be this person is critical for us.”

Contreras-Sweet takes over an agency facing a number of challenges. While the department’s total lending volume remains near record highs, the amount of loans it has backed has fallen in each of the past two years, and government oversight reports have uncovered a number of problems with some of the agency’s lending programs.

Meanwhile, the department has come under fire for the slow pace in which it processed disaster loan applications in the wake of natural disasters and for not doing enough to combat fraud and abuse in the federal government’s small-business contracting programs. On Tuesday, members of the House Small Business Committee criticized the agency for shifting funding away from its core responsibilities to small businesses.

Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said in a statement that he looks forward to working with Contreras-Sweet, later adding that he hopes she will “give a voice to small businesses in this White House” and “redirect the SBA to focus on its core missions of capital access, contracting, and counseling.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.