Over the past two years, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been the congresswoman who could do no wrong. The telegenic, rising political star has enjoyed a largely uncritical media spotlight, the likes of which is hardly ever afforded a new representative with a relatively short political resume.

And she’s played in that environment like a pro. Here she is in the New York Times, there on CNN, and she is the rare Democratic official who regularly appears on Fox News.  It’s been quite an impressive phenomenon.

But in recent weeks, she’s encountered her first major bumps in the road, and they’re providing a different look at the second-term congresswoman.

Washington Magazine cover Tulsi Gabbard. 23 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Washington Magazine is among the many media outlets where Gabbard has received star treatment during her two years in office.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As Civil Beat editorialized recently, Gabbard’s dogged, ongoing crusade against the president’s restrained public characterizations of terrorists has left many observers scratching their heads.

Then last week, a new issue arose that raises fresh questions: the appointment of a longtime friend with scant political experience, and none in Washington, D.C., to serve as her chief of staff.

Stories in Civil Beat and Hawaii News Now featured criticisms from prominent political figures and pundits calling the selection of Kainoa Ramananda Penaroza “unusual,” bizarre,” “perplexing” and “not a choice that nearly any other member of Congress” would make.

Whether hiring Penaroza turns out to be a strong or poor decision, it’s another high-profile matter in which the representative’s judgment is being called into question.  Gabbard might have helped allay concerns by explaining her choice more completely. Instead, she hastily put out a news release announcing Penaroza’s hire after Civil Beat first began to ask questions, and then she refused further comment on the matter.

Kainoa Penaroza

Kainoa Penaroza is Gabbard’s new chief of staff.

It’s a strategy that rarely works in today’s digital environment.  Fueled by speculation and past media coverage of the Gabbard family’s religious affiliations, the matter has mushroomed on message boards and social media. As of Sunday, posts of the stories on Civil Beat, HNN and Huffington Post had drawn many hundreds of comments from critics and defenders.

Gabbard would be well advised to recall an old political maxim: A little transparency goes a long way.  Constituents and the media who serve them often seek answers to difficult questions, and the manner in which elected officials answer them – or don’t – can play a significant role in how voters ultimately perceive them.

One unorthodox staffing choice and her recurring semantics beef with the President shouldn’t overly characterize an otherwise solid record of service. Whether they will is entirely up to Rep. Gabbard.

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