Three weeks after naming a political neophyte to be her chief of staff, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard finally answered questions from a reporter about why she selected the health food sales manager to be her top adviser in Washington, D.C.

In selecting Kainoa Ramananda Penaroza for the top spot in her office, Gabbard said she did not want “another political insider.”

“There are many, many of those in Washington,” she said Wednesday. “And I look to who I work for, and I look to who hired me. It’s the people of Hawaii, who understand what it means to live aloha. And I thought it was important to have someone there who understands Hawaii, who loves Hawaii.”

Gabbard, the U.S. representative for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, explained her hiring criteria to radio reporter Sherry Bracken of LAVA 105.3 FM and KKOA 107.7 FM during an in-person interview on the Big Island.

Tulsi Gabbard resigns from Honolulu City Council

Tulsi Gabbard resigning from the Honolulu City Council to run for Congress in 2012.

Nick Grube/Honolulu Civil Beat

Bracken’s full 30-minute interview with the congresswoman will air Sunday, March 22, at 6:30 a.m. The topics, according to Gabbard’s office, include how issues with veterans care are being addressed, the Keahou Water Aquifer and mentorship for Hawaii Island’s young leaders of tomorrow.

But Bracken also asked Gabbard about the controversial hire, pointing out that Penaroza appeared to have no experience working in D.C. She referenced a Civil Beat editorial that argued Gabbard needed to answer questions about the hire.

Gabbard replied, “Well, when you look at Washington, what do most people think about when they look at Congress and they look at Washington? They unfortunately see dysfunction. They see political insiders who take better care of special interests than the people back home who hire them to get there. And you see stagnation, you see a lack of creativity, a lack of innovation in how to get things done.”

Penaroza, she said, understands Hawaii but also has a useful background in small business and entrepreneurship and brings a “strong sense” of leadership and management skills.

Gabbard added that she has others who serve on what she described as “a well-rounded staff,” including D.C. veterans.

As Civil Beat reported, Penaroza’s hire baffled political observers and was in sharp contrast to the type of political pedigree often associated with the important position of chief of staff. The annual salary for congressional chiefs of staff is typically well over $100,000.

Penaroza, the third person to hold the top position in the two years Gabbard has represented Hawaii in Washington, previously worked as a sales manager at Puna Noni Inc., as a broker at Ecoceptional Inc. and as the owner of the Kailua-based Tag Aloha Co.

According to a press release from Gabbard’s office announcing the hire on Feb. 25, Penaroza volunteered for Gabbard during her campaign for the Hawaii State House of Representatives in 2002 and later worked as a coordinator for her 2009-2010 campaign for the Honolulu City Council.

He was also an event organizer and grassroots coordinator for her 2012 and 2014 campaigns for Congress.

Listen to the 3-minute clip of Bracken asking Gabbard about Penaroza:

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