Maui’s first mayor, Elmer Cravalho, who moved the Valley Isle from plantations to a top visitor destination and served as speaker of the Territorial House of Representatives during the fight for statehood, died Monday afternoon.
Cravalho, 90, had been residing at the senior living home Roselani Place in Kahului.
“Maui certainly would not be the prosperous place it is today if not for him, those No. 1 rankings that Maui gets for ‘Best Island’ and best place to visit are all because of his vision,” Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said in a written statement.
Former Gov. George
Ariyoshi said, “He was very good for Maui. He made the tourism industry grow there. He was smart. He knew what needed done, and he knew how to go about doing it.”
Cravalho was elected to the Territorial House of Representative as part of the 1954 Democratic Party takeover of the Legislature.
It was Cravalho who relayed the message from then-Territorial Delegate John Burns in Washington, D.C., to a cramped House of Representatives gathered in Iolani Palace, that Congress had approved statehood for Hawaii.
In a 2009 Honolulu Advertiser story, Cravalho recalled that day and his historic conversation with Burns on March 11, 1959.
A day earlier the U.S. Senate had voted 75-15 in favor of the legislation — a milestone in a decades-long push for the Territory of Hawaii to formally join the United States. “It was big,” Cravalho said in the 2009 story. “It was very exciting and very historic.”
With the Legislature already in session, the Territorial House was packed with representatives.
It was still morning in
Honolulu when Cravalho took to the rostrum to accept the call by Burns, who made the connection just as the vote in Washington was getting underway. As Burns reported the action vote by vote, Cravalho on the other end relayed the information.
“It was a very significant and emotional act for our House members,” Cravalho said. “At the announcement of the final tally … (the representatives) rose as a single body without any prompting, sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘Hawaii Pono‘i,’ then walked across the street to Kawaiaha‘o Church.”
Cravalho served as speaker of the territorial and state House of Representatives from 1959 to 1967. He was elected Maui’s first mayor in in 1969 under a new charter provision that established the current political system, removing a governing board of supervisors, and served until 1979.
Cravalho was an early opponent of the Navy’s target bombing of Kahoolawe, an island several miles across a channel from Maui, and his position hardened when he found a 500-pound bomb in his Maui cattle pasture in 1969, according to Honolulu Star-Bulletin articles.
He was defeated in his attempt to once again become Maui mayor in 1990, losing in a major upset to then-Republican County Councilwoman Linda Lingle, who later became governor.
Cravalho also served as chairman of Maui Board of Water Supply; was one of the eight founding members of the Kula Community Federal Credit Union in 1954, retiring from its board in 2014; and served as a delegate to the 1960 Democratic National Convention.
Arakawa said, “Even after he left office, Mayor Cravalho continued to help people when he joined Kula Community Federal Credit Union. He helped almost every farmer stay afloat during tough times, myself included, sometimes on nothing more than a handshake.”
Born in Kula, Cravalho was one of seven children of Mary and Manuel Cravalho, according a video produced in 2012 by Maui High School, from which he graduated in 1944.
In September 2014, at the luau celebrating Maui High’s centennial, Cravalho recalled catching the bus for an hourlong ride to the school’s old Hamakuapoko campus and finding part-time work as a janitor while he was a student.
“It was quite an educational experience,” Cravalho said.
He recalled that when he was growing up during the plantation era, area residents sometimes earned 25 cents an hour and bought goods at the store controlled by the plantation. “You were forever in poverty,” he said.
Cravalho was the first student from Hawaii to attend the University of Notre Dame and graduated in 1950, according to the university’s Hawaii club website.
In a written statement, Gov. David Ige recalled Cravalho’s legacy. “Former Speaker Cravalho was a trailblazer who helped shaped the Democratic Party and the island of Maui. He will be remembered for his many years in public service, especially his work to support the underprivileged on the Valley Isle.”
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono described Cravalho as “a politically astute visionary. He cared for Maui first and foremost and his primary concern during his time in public office was to do what was best for Maui County. One of the areas where Elmer left a lasting impact is the diversification of Maui’s economy. He was a leader in developing and growing Maui’s visitor industry. We are thankful to Mayor Cravalho.”
Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who is from Maui, said: “I send my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Mayor Cravalho, who left an indelible mark in Hawaii history by becoming Maui’s first mayor. He will also be remembered for the countless contributions he has made as speaker of the state and Territorial House. Everywhere we look on Maui reminds us of his legacy. He will be missed.”
State Senate Majority Leader Kalani English (D, Molokai-Lanai-East Maui) said, “An era has passed with Elmer Cravalho. He was iconic in local politics and a guiding force in creating the state of Hawaii. Elmer was renowned in Maui County for helping the new immigrants from the Philippines integrate into the United States to become a vibrant part of our community. He was also an architect of Maui’s infrastructure and development by limiting growth to the South and West side of the island to preserve the natural beauty on the East and North side.”
House Speaker Joseph Souki (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku) remembered Cravalho as a savvy businessman and caring person totally devoted to Maui’s people.
“He will be remembered as a strong negotiator for the people of Maui,” said Souki. “Under his leadership both in business and politics, the island of Maui has prospered. He was a great man and a good friend. He will be dearly missed.”