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U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is turning to a political neophyte to lead her operations in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, the Hawaii Democrat announced that she has picked Kainoa Ramananda Penaroza to serve as her chief of staff, making him the third person to hold the top position in the two years she has represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.
The announcement of Penaroza’s appointment came in the form of a hastily issued statement, released a few hours after Civil Beat had requested an interview with the new chief of staff. Penaroza didn’t return a call to reporters in Honolulu or meet with a reporter and photographer who visited Gabbard’s Washington, D.C., office on Tuesday in part to ask about the new hire.
The press release doesn’t say when Penaroza began his job in Gabbard’s D.C. operation, but a LinkedIn profile has him working as a health-food products sales manager in Hawaii until two months ago. He also lists current ownership of a natural-clothing company that provides products to Whole Foods.
In the press release, Gabbard describes Penaroza as “an entrepreneur and small business owner” and mentions that he worked for six years as a “national sales manager for a Hawaii company” but leaves out its name.
Penaroza’s political resume, meanwhile, is a thin one. Gabbard’s press release credits him for working as a volunteer in her first political campaign — the successful run for a state House seat in 2002. Penaroza went on to work as a coordinator during her run for Honolulu City Council and then as an “event organizer and grassroots coordinator” — also as a volunteer, according to Penaroza’s LinkedIn profile — for Gabbard’s 2012 and 2014 campaigns for the national office.
“From his time as an entrepreneur and small business owner, project manager, and campaign coordinator, to his service-oriented approach to life, Kainoa brings to the office a unique, down-to-earth, and results-driven style of leadership that matches up with my desire to be of service to the people of Hawaii and the United States,” Gabbard said in her statement. “He will be an effective leader for my team, both in Hawaii and Washington.”
Penaroza, in the statement, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for me to help create a better future for my home state of Hawaii. … [Gabbard] represents the same values and principles of aloha and servant leadership that I hold important in my own life, and I feel privileged to be asked to join her in serving Hawaii.”
Penaroza’s appointment represents the latest major shake-up in Gabbard’s staff. The first round came in June 2013, just six months into her tenure, when she lost Amy Asselbaye, her first chief of staff, along with former Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Goedke.
Asselbaye’s successor, Jessica Vanden Berg, left her post shortly before the 2014 election. The circumstances surrounding her departure are unclear.
Civil Beat called Vanden Berg Tuesday, hours before Gabbard’s office announced the new chief of staff. Now an Arlington, Virginia-based political consultant, she declined to comment for this story.
But she is quoted in Gabbard’s press release as saying, simply, “It was an honor and privilege to work with Representative Gabbard and to serve the people of Hawai’i’s Second Congressional District.”
The news of Penaroza’s appointment was met with a varying sense of amusement, surprise and disbelief by Hawaii’s political insiders — including staffers among Hawaii’s congressional delegation — but most of them were not willing to speak on the record with Civil Beat.
Bart Dame, a longtime political observer who is active in Hawaii’s Democratic circles, is puzzled why Gabbard would hire a political novice as her top adviser, but it might be a moot point.
“She seems to be getting somewhere on the national stage,” Dame said. “The way she’s playing things out at national and international stages — that may be enough to get her re-elected.”
• Civil Beat reporter Chad Blair contributed to this report.
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