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Bruce Coppa remembers well the first call he received as former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s chief of staff. It was about a man who had just threatened to blow up a plane at the Honolulu International Airport. By the time Coppa picked up, the crisis had been averted. But he still needed to brief the governor about what had just happened. It was part of the job.
“They’re calling you because you’re the guy,” Coppa said. “You don’t get to test the water. Once you jump in — you’re in.”
It’s the hardest gig Coppa ever had, and that’s saying a lot. He’s now a partner at Capitol Consultants of Hawaii, the most powerful lobbying firm in the state. Prior to becoming Abercrombie’s right-hand man, he held top executive positions in both the business and labor sectors, including with the Pacific Resource Partnership and the large PR firm Communications Pacific.
That’s why he and other political observers find U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s latest hire as the chief of staff so perplexing.
Kainoa Ramananda Penaroza, 30, who is the third person to hold the position in two years, doesn’t have the kind of political experiences found in the resume of a typical high-ranking congressional staffer.
He’s a former health-food sales manager for Puna Noni Inc., a family owned business based in Kailua, and an owner of Tag Aloha Co., a environmentally friendly clothing company. His political experience is limited to volunteer and coordinator work on Gabbard’s previous campaigns, including her runs for Honolulu City Council and the Hawaii House of Representatives.
But neither Gabbard nor Penaroza are talking to Civil Beat or other local media about the hire. Hawaii News Now reported Thursday that the congresswoman canceled a scheduled phone interview with the station, yet appeared on a live CNN newscast earlier in the day.
Gabbard issued a press release earlier this week about Penaroza, whom she has known for more than 20 years, but only after Civil Beat had called to ask questions about Penaroza. Both she and Penaroza declined to meet with a Civil Beat reporter and photographer who visited her office in Washington, D.C.
In the press release, Gabbard said Penaroza would be “an effective leader for my team, both in Hawaii and Washington.”
But what makes an effective chief of staff anyway?
To better understand the job of the chief of staff, Civil Beat reached out to a number of political experts in and out of Hawaii to learn what the job entails and what kinds of attributes and experiences are required.
The chief of staff position, essentially, is a creation of the modern Congress, established only after the World War II as an extension of administrative assistants positions. It has evolved to become part CEO, part fixer, part personnel manager, part gatekeeper and part confidant.
“I would have to know a heck of a lot more about what she wanted from this guy and what this guy offers before I say that’s a good idea.” — UH Science Professor Emeritus Neal Milner
Betty Koed, associate historian with the U.S. Senate, described the chief of staff as someone who is a “director” or “conductor,” watching over the office to make sure the staff is working together, that legislation is moving along and that constituents’ needs are met. Often the chief of staff is the one who whispers in the ear of a congress member during hearings, is involved in high-level policy decisions and ensures that their boss is up to speed each day.
“They are the top funnel,” she said, noting that everything goes through them first. “Strong management skills and legislative knowledge are very important.”
Koed said the typical resume of a high-ranking staffer in the House or Senate includes experience inside the Beltway or elsewhere in politics since these are typically the people making back-room deals. It’s helpful if they have the connections and know-how to push their boss’ agenda.
“The chiefs of staff in the Senate tend to be people who have been on the Hill for a long time. They have worked their way up,” Koed said. “It’s a prestigious job. They typically have a lot of experience. Typically, really good chiefs of staff will migrate from office to office.”
Penaroza is joining an elite class. But, when comparing Penaroza’s resume to those of his colleagues in Hawaii’s congressional delegation, it’s clear he’s lacking the same political pedigree.
U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, who was first elected in 2014, named longtime public policy executive Rod Tanonaka to be his chief of staff. Tanonaka served in the same capacity with former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Before that, he worked for Hanabusa in the Hawaii Senate and was a senior clerk for that chamber’s Ways and Means Committee.
Andy Winer has been U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s chief of staff since Schatz’s appointment to fill the seat of the late Sen. Dan Inouye in December 2012. Winer was the behind-the-scenes campaign manager for Schatz’s 2014 special-election win. He previously worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and practiced law in Honolulu for 25 years.
Winer is also a veteran of other Hawaii Senate election campaigns. He was Daniel Akaka’s campaign manager during the 2006 Democratic primary and was a senior advisor to Mazie Hirono in her bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Betsy Lin was Hirono’s campaign manager in 2012 before she was appointed as her chief of staff. Lin has 16 years of political experience, including work for the Service Employees International Union, on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 and Akaka’s 2006 Senate campaign.
She has also served as deputy political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and as senior policy advisor for former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) before joining Hirono’s House staff.
Gabbard’s previous chiefs of staff were also political veterans. Jessica Vanden Berg was a senior advisor to former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and prior to that served as a communications director for former U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell in Iowa.
Her predecessor, Amy Asselbaye, was the chief of staff for Abercrombie both when he was governor and while serving in the U.S. House.
“There are no rules, and certainly a lot of successful chiefs of staff had no experience in Congress before arriving on the Hill with a newly elected member,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report. What’s important, she added, is that the chiefs of staff makes their boss’ look good and achieve their legislative and policy goals.
While some might say that Penaroza and his lack of political experience is a welcome contrast to the entrenched inside-baseball played in D.C., Neal Milner, University of Hawaii professor emeritus of political science, doesn’t buy it.
“It’s certainly a nice theory, but what is it that ‘fresh blood’ is supposed to do in this kind of situation?” Milner asked. “It’s not a big-idea kind of position; you’re working for the office. I would have to know a heck of a lot more about what she wanted from this guy and what this guy offers before I say that’s a good idea.”
What compounds the challenge for Penaroza is the byzantine nature of federal politics, where nuance and context matter. He’ll be a fresh face with presumably few connections to help him navigate the often choppy political waters.
John Hart, a longtime political pundit who chairs the communications department at Hawaii Pacific University, says it pays to have some prior experience given the complexity of the job. Not only will Penaroza be responsible for tracking legislation and face-timing with congressional colleagues, but he’ll also be charged with making sure Gabbard’s offices on the mainland and in Hawaii are operating smoothly.
“If this person can’t be a good chief of staff and her office doesn’t run well, will that affect any national aspirations she might have? Absolutely” — HPU Professor John Hart
“Her pick undoubtedly would be considered unusual,” Hart said. “It doesn’t mean the person isn’t qualified. It doesn’t mean they can’t do the job. It does mean that, if this person is going to be successful, they will have to be a quick learner and will have to grow into the job. He is presumably someone the congresswoman knows well and has a lot of faith in.”
The fact that Penaroza is Gabbard’s third chief of staff in two years highlights a possible lack of stability within Gabbard’s office, Hart said.
If Penaroza doesn’t take hold, the fallout could influence Gabbard’s future on the national stage. She is a regular on the talk-show circuit and has been as a darling of the Democratic Party. She’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. Senate and even as a potential cabinet member should a Democrat win the 2016 presidential election.
“If this person can’t be a good chief of staff and her office doesn’t run well, will that affect any national aspirations she might have? Absolutely,” Hart said. “If you can’t be an effective congressperson, how can you be something beyond that? She must believe in her (chief of staff). She’s putting her office in his hands, and if her office doesn’t run well, she will pay the price for that.”