Paia-born Cravalho was county’s first mayor

Maui County’s first mayor, Elmer F. Cravalho, was born in the old Paia Hospital on Baldwin Avenue, the fifth of eight children.

According to his niece, Karolyn Mossman, Cravalho was the first boy of what the family called the “younger set.” That is, the family had an oldest boy and three girls in the “older set,” and then a boy (Cravalho) and three more girls made up the “younger set.”

His father, Manuel, was an elementary school teacher, and his mother, Mary, stayed home with the kids and made some money from a family garden and some livestock.

Cravalho lived what he called a “normal country childhood,” according to an interview with late Staff Writer Ron Youngblood, published Sept. 27, 1987, in The Maui News. (Youngblood had earlier worked as public information officer in Cravalho’s mayoral administration.)

Cravalho’s first job as a school kid was cutting grass in the pineapple fields for Libby McNeil & Libby. At the time, he was too small to pick pineapple, he said. He was among students who went to school four days a week and worked on the fifth to supplement the loss of manpower during World War II.

In June of 1943, he dropped out of school and found employment doing odd jobs at the naval base at Puunene. He missed the first quarter of his senior year; he was readmitted to school provided that he make up for all his missed work.

In 1946, two years short of gaining a college degree, he was called home to teach at a time when many elementary school teachers had only high school diplomas.

He taught at Haiku, Paia and Kula until 1954, and in that same year, he and six others started the Kula Credit Union with $35. (When the Maui and Kula credit unions merged on Jan. 1, 2014, the Kula Credit Union had assets of roughly $40 million, according to Clayton Fuchigami, Maui Federal Credit Union president and chief executive officer.)

Around the same time, Cravalho joined the Democratic Party because, he said, “that was where the action was.”

Blessed with administrative abilities, Cravalho rose in the party ranks and was elected chairman of the Maui County Democratic Party in 1954, the year of the Democratic revolution in Hawaii politics, the year when plantation worker sons and war veterans overthrew the plantation-boss-backed, and until-then, dominant Republican Party.

Saying that the upstart Democrats had “more guts than brains,” they ventured out to grasp political power at a time when being aligned with labor unions – as the Democrats were – was tantamount to being part of the Communist Party. Later, as the Territory of Hawaii sought recognition for statehood, there was opposition against including a state with a Legislature controlled by “communists,” because of their union support, Cravalho recalled.

“We were all considered Reds, and I wasn’t even pink,” he said.

Cravalho was among a group of Democrats – including Robert N. “Bobby” Kimura, Vince Esposito, Nadao Yoshinaga and David Trask – elected to the Territorial House of Representatives in 1954. They ran as a group, with campaign workers handing out literature for all of them.

In the Territorial Legislature, Cravalho served as House Finance Committee chairman before being elected speaker in 1958.

Former Gov. George Ariyoshi served with Cravalho, remembering him as a “very forceful leader” who knew what he wanted to do and how to accomplish it.

“He was an outstanding speaker,” he said. “He was very good at counting votes.”

And, Ariyoshi said, that at the top of the Democratic leaders’ agenda in those days, was upending the power of the “Big 5” companies – Alexander & Baldwin, Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer & Co., Amfac (earlier, American Factors) and Theo H. Davies & Co. – the Hawaii businesses that dominated Hawaii from the late 1800s to the 1950s.

Ariyoshi said Cravalho played “a major role” in helping wrestle political and economic power away from the “Big 5” by changing land use and other laws.

“It was a pleasure to know him. He was my friend,” Ariyoshi said. “I feel very strongly about Elmer and the kinds of things he did in Hawaii.”

It was Cravalho, as speaker, who took a phone call from John Burns in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1959, reporting that Hawaii had won statehood with passage of the Hawaii Admission Act. Cravalho stood on the floor of the House of Representatives at Iolani Palace and relayed the news to waiting lawmakers who broke into singing the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Hawai’i Pono ‘I.”

In 1966, Cravalho returned to Maui County and ran in a special election for the then Board of Supervisors, defeating Manuel Molina by 139 votes for the board chairmanship. (The election was held after the unexpected death of Chairman Eddie Tam.)

In 1968, voters approved a Maui County Charter, setting up today’s strong mayor-council government structure. Cravalho was elected Maui County’s first mayor that year and served until he resigned suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, in 1979.

Aside from politics, during his first term in the House, he worked as a $50-a-month janitor at the Kula Gym, and he raised cattle. He later became office manager for Maui Dry Goods, and he operated a piggery, which had 1,500 head in 1987 in Puunene.

He spent tens of thousands of dollars annually to support children in the Philippines, and he adopted five children legally in the country, after he saw the extent of poverty there during a sister-city visit to Bacarra, Ilocos Norte, in the early days of his administration as mayor. He had no biological children.

Cravalho’s niece, Rae Landes-Mizukami, lived with him as his caregiver for more than 20 years and was with him at Roselani Place, an assisted-living facility in Kahului, when he died at 4:52 p.m. Monday.

Funeral services will be private, for family members only, she said.

“He was a very private man,” she said. “He cared about his community, and he cared about his family. He did it quietly. He didn’t do it with a lot of fanfare.”

She described Cravalho as being “calm and relaxed . . . very peaceful” when he died under hospice care.

“It was a nice way to go,” Landes-Mizukami said.

He is survived by his sister, Theresa Browning, and several nieces and nephews.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.