HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's decision to hire a childhood friend with no experience working in government or Congress as her chief of staff is "bizarre" and "unusual," political insiders said Thursday.
Gabbard announced this week that Kainoa Ramananda Penaroza, 30, will be her third chief of staff in just two years.
Penaroza has no experience working in Congress or government. For the last five years, he's been a sales manager for Puna Noni, his family's Kailua-based health business, which sells drinks and body products made from the Noni fruit. He also started a natural clothing company.
"I think it's an unusual choice," said UH Manoa political science professor Colin Moore, a Hawaii News Now political analyst. "It's not a choice that nearly any other member of Congress makes. They usually take people who have a lot of experience, either in the state legislature or in Washington."
Hawaii's other member of the U.S. House, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, has a chief of staff with years of government experience who also served as chief of staff in Washington for the last three years for his predecessor, Colleen Hanabusa. Before that, Rod Tanonaka worked for Hanabusa in the State Senate, where he was also senior clerk of the powerful ways and means committee.
Gabbard's office said she was not available for a phone interview Thursday afternoon, but earlier in the day she did have time to appear live on CNN. Gabbard has appeared in at least eight live interviews on CNN, FOX and MSNBC networks this month so far.
In a statement, Gabbard said: "I've known Kainoa for many years. I've found him to be dependable, energetic, and smart. Most importantly, he shares my love for Hawaii, and my enthusiasm to be of service to the people of Hawaii and our nation."
Moore, the political analyst, said, "Your heart can be in the right place. You can have great incentives and I have no doubt that that's the case here. He wants to help the people of Hawaii. But you have to understand how difficult it is to operate in the House. And you need a lot of experience to do that."
Former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, a Republican, said Gabbard is free to choose whoever she likes and trusts but he would not have made that choice.
"To have staff which is very inexperienced adding to a very junior Congressional delegation that's in the minority, that's what I think the concern here is for residents of Hawaii," Djou said.
Djou said his chief of staff was a lawyer and former partner at a large Honolulu law firm who had taught classes at the University of Hawaii's law school and served as general counsel to the Republican Party of Hawaii.
Gabbard's Congressional spokesman said Gabbard, who is 33, has known Penaroza for more than 20 years.
In a news release announcing Penaroza's appointment Feb. 24, Gabbard said, "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."
"He will be an effective leader for my team, both in Hawaii and Washington," Gabbard added.
Born and raised in Honolulu, Penaroza volunteered for her first political campaign for the state House of Representatives in 2002, the news release said. He later was a coordinator Honolulu City Council campaign in 2009 and 2010 and was an event organizer and grassroots coordinator for her 2012 and 2014 Congressional campaigns.
Still, Moore called Gabbard's choice of Penaroza "bizarre."
"The way to really be an important member of Congress is grinding out the details and the stuff that Senator (Dan) Inouye used to do. And to do that, you need a staff member who really has a lot of experience at working in this institution," Moore added.
Congressional chiefs of staff are responsible for coordinating and supervising the work of the Congressional office, overseeing hiring and firing the staff of legislative aides and constituent service employees. Sometimes referred as a Congress member's administrative assistants, chiefs of staff also serve as the member's chief political advisor and help lay out the legislative and political goals of the office.