Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON – Karen Mills, the only Maine resident in President Obama’s Cabinet, announced Monday that she will step down as head of the Small Business Administration after nearly four years on the job.

Mills, who lives in Brunswick, has been administrator of the Small Business Administration since April 2009. She led the agency in a tumultuous time as the Obama administration struggled to get the economy back on course.

She is the latest Cabinet member — and the fourth woman — to announce her departure as the administration begins a new four-year term.

“Serving as SBA administrator, and seeing this agency rise to meet the economic challenges we faced when I arrived four years ago, has been both a privilege and an honor,” Mills wrote in a letter to the staff on Monday.

Mills will stay on the job until her successor is confirmed by the Senate. She did not specify her plans.

Her departure set off a flurry of speculation on Twitter as to whether she might seek elective office in Maine. Her name has occasionally come up as a possible Democratic contender in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

Obama elevated the SBA administrator job to a Cabinet-level position, making Mills a key part of his economic team. On Monday, the president praised Mills.

“Over the last four years, Karen has made it easier for small businesses to interact with the federal government by reducing paperwork and cutting through red tape,” he said in a prepared statement. “She has played a leading role in my administration’s efforts to support start-ups and entrepreneurs. … Because of Karen’s hard work and dedication, our small businesses are better positioned to create jobs and our entire economy is stronger.”

As administrator, Mills is responsible for an agency with more than 3,000 employees that often acts as a bridge between the government, banks and the nation’s small businesses.

The Small Business Administration now manages more than $90 billion in loan guarantees, supporting more than $30 billion in loans to 60,000 businesses in 2011.

Throughout the recession, Mills and the Small Business Administration played a key role in trying to persuade banks to start lending again to businesses and open up their credit lines.

The agency also assists businesses with federal contracting, navigating export requirements and securing disaster relief and federal grants.

Susan Eckerly, senior vice president for policy with the National Federation of Independent Business, said she believes that the Obama administration’s policies have not helped small businesses grow. Eckerly directed much of her criticism not directly at Mills but at the Obama administration’s controversial health-care law, which the federation strongly opposed and continues to denounce.

“(Mills) had to preside over a very difficult time in our economy and within the (scope) of the administration she tried to use the tools that were available to her,” Eckerly said. “But the bottom line for us, and the 800-pound gorilla in the room, is the health-care law. And she wasn’t able to stop that.”

Before joining the Small Business Administration, Mills was a venture capitalist, most recently serving as president of the private equity firm MMP Group in Brunswick. Mills is married to Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin College.

Her departure is Maine’s second loss in as many months of an influential voice for small businesses. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe was the top Republican on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee until she retired after 34 years in Congress.

Snowe urged Obama to elevate Mills’ position to Cabinet level.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation praised Mills’ tenure.

“Even during these tough economic times for our nation’s small businesses, Karen brought drive, determination, and dedication to her position at SBA,” said Sen. Susan Collins, in a prepared statement.

Sen. Angus King, a Brunswick resident who knows Mills personally, called her a “tireless champion” for small businesses.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

[email protected]

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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