Obama nominates Calif. businesswoman to lead SBA

WASHINGTON (AP) — Putting a finishing touch on his second term Cabinet, President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated Maria Contreras-Sweet, the founder of a Latino-owned community bank in Los Angeles and a former California Cabinet secretary, to be head of the Small Business Administration.

Obama praised Contreras-Sweet, who immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old, as a "champion of women-owned and family owned businesses." Contreras-Sweet, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, has a history of working with small businesses and has been an advocate for Hispanics. As California's secretary of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency from 1999 to 2003, she was the first Latina to serve as a Cabinet secretary in the state and oversaw 40,000 state employees and a $12 billion budget.

In 2006, she founded ProAmerica Bank, a financial institution that aimed to assist small and mid-size businesses. Before that, she was president and co-founder of a private equity firm that provided capital to small California businesses.

"Maria knows how hard it is to get started on a business," Obama said. "The grueling hours, the stress, the occasional self-doubt, although I have not yet seen self-doubt out of Maria. She knows it herself."

If confirmed by the Senate, Contreras-Sweet would fill the last vacant Obama Cabinet slot, filling the SBA administrator's position formerly occupied by Karen Mills who left in August. Contreras-Sweet would become the second Hispanic in Obama's second-term Cabinet. The other is Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. She would also become the eighth woman in Obama's current Cabinet. Obama's selection had been the subject of intense interest among Hispanic leaders, who wanted to ensure they had a high-profile presence in the administration.

Obama said Contreras-Sweet's grandmother, a migrant worker in Mexico, once advised her that if she studied hard she might eventually work in an office as a secretary and make her proud. Obama noted that she ended up being a Cabinet secretary in California.

"Maria is fulfilling the vision of her grandma in ways that maybe are not entirely expected," he said. Her pick comes as some small business advocates have questioned the Obama administration's commitment to that broad segment of the private sector.

"Hopefully, upon confirmation, she will reach out to small business organizations and the entrepreneurs themselves to listen to their ideas and concerns," said Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. "For the past year or more, the SBA has gone dark in terms of outreach."

Rep. Sam Graves, the Republican chairman of the House Small Business Committee, said the time it took Obama to nominate a successor to Mills "showed us that small businesses really aren't valued much by this administration."

Associated Press writer Joyce Rosenberg in New York contributed to this report.

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