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Exclusive: Colorado Lieutenant Governor a top pick for US Labor chief - sources

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Colorado Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia is a leading candidate to become secretary of labor in President Barack Obama's second-term cabinet, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters on Thursday.

Garcia, a Hispanic former president of Colorado State University-Pueblo, would bring racial diversity and a Western flair to Obama's team.

The president has faced criticism for failing to choose women and minority candidates for cabinet vacancies at the departments of state, defense, and treasury.

Garcia, if nominated and confirmed, would succeed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a Latina who earlier this month announced plans to resign.

Garcia, through a spokesman, declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment.

The promotion to lead a federal government agency would be a big jump for Garcia, who rose rapidly from a career in higher education to become Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's No. 2.

Hickenlooper picked Garcia to be his running mate in 2010. Once in office, he made Garcia executive director of Colorado's Department of Higher Education in addition to his lieutenant governor role.

"Joe Garcia is one of the most extraordinary individuals I've worked with. Everything he does he excels at," Hickenlooper said in a statement emailed to Reuters by a spokesman.

"We would hate to lose him, but our loss without question would be the nation's gain," he said.

The choice of Garcia would highlight the importance of Latinos - a hugely influential voting bloc - and of Colorado, a political swing state that supported Obama in the 2012 election.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a fellow Hispanic from Colorado, said earlier this month he planned to leave his post by the end of March to return to his ranch.

Garcia was credited with revitalizing student enrollment, improving finances and strengthening the reputation of Colorado State University-Pueblo.

"Joe Garcia is incredibly talented," said Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, who said he was not aware that Garcia was a candidate for the Labor post. "I think he brings a lot to the table."

Obama has singled out Garcia for praise during campaign trips to Colorado, calling him "one of the finest lieutenant governors" during a trip to Denver in May.

Obama chose John Kerry, a former Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts senator, to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of State; Jack Lew, a former White House chief of staff, to succeed Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary; and Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Garcia is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Harvard Law School.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)

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