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Hawai’i Statehood and the Quest for the State Capital on Maui

March 30, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Some Mauians are continually frustrated by the seeming arrogance of the residents of the State of Oahu. Company meeting times (which make Mauians awake at 5 AM to dash to the Kahului airport for an early morning meeting) are dictated by Honolulu residents, who bypass the Neighbor Islands and see San Francisco or Los Angeles as part of their world, never Kahului or Hilo, let alone Lihue or even Niihau. After all, Honolulu is the State capital. The center of the Hawaiian islands. All sea lanes, flight corridors, and roads lead to the State government. The capital then attracts banking, insurance, corporate headquarters -- transforming a place. And that’s that. But there was a short, intense time in Hawaiian history when some Mauian boosters truly believed that the State capital site would be on the island of Maui.

Mauians felt that there was a historical precedent for such a logical move, since historically, Lahaina, the bustling port town on the far western side of Maui, was the Hawaiian Kingdom’s capital in the mid-19th century. After quiet decades as part of the Territory of Hawaii (T.H.), when Statehood was mentioned as a possibility for Hawai’i by the mid-1950s, Mauian boosters pounced on the chance for the capital to be naturally located on the Hawaiian archipelago's most economically-viable, culturally-vibrant, well-educated and future-looking island: Maui. And containing the State’s most hard-working, intelligent, civic-minded citizens.

A year before Statehood, the Maui News cited the Maui Chamber of Commerce as lobbying for the “selection as site of territorial capital” (which would lead to the next step, the State capital on Maui). The Maui News later optimistically blared: “Maui to be considered for new capital, areas suggested “. By January, 1959, Maui boosters were heartened by an article in the Los Angeles Times on “why Maui is No Ka Oi” (the promotion of the unique Maui “brand” had preceded Statehood) – the branding campaign, boosters hoped, would lead to an easy determination that the State capital should be on Maui, since Maui is indeed “the best”.

In spring 1959, the Maui News reported that “Lahaina could become capital of state” (what we would now call a "positive spin"), yet by early summer Mauians saw their perhaps quixotic campaign had no chance to succeed and gave in, with a last Maui-centric boost: (Maui News headline) “Honolulu chosen as capital, Maui only neighbor isle to make strong pitch”. When Statehood finally came in August 1959, Honolulu became the new official State capital, and the short, intense Maui-centric campaign vanished into history.

The year preceding Statehood must have been quite an exciting time for Mauians. Anything seemed possible for Mauians.

It is difficult to understand now in 2012 how frustrating and humiliating many people felt living in the Territory of Hawai’i, perceived as second-class citizens when many felt so 100% American, English-speaking, American-educated, just as any other U.S. citizen from California or Texas. As early as the 1920s Governor W. R. Farrington (my high school is named after him) was calling to repeal laws that made it difficult for residents of the Territory of Hawai'i to travel freely to the Mainland -- unthinkable now. To many Mauians, Statehood was the ultimate sign of acceptance, fairness, equality.

With Hawai’i a State, it was a bright new Techni-color world. Maui-born children could have opportunities one could only dream in the black-and-white, backward Territory of Hawai’i – that was how people thought and spoke in 1950s Maui, like at the Toda Drug Store, Ooka’s supermarket (which was launched two years before Statehood), ILWU union meetings, 442nd Club dinners, and church and temple after-service pot-luck lunches.

Youthful, driven Hawai’i politicians (of both parties) during the early Statehood period who would lead the entire State were disproportionately from Maui: Patsy Takemoto Mink, Elmer Cravalho, Mamoru Yamasaki, Nadao Yoshinaga, Toshio Anzai, and George Fukuoka. The future Governor John Burns’ political advisor was a Maui High graduate, Dan Aoki (my father’s classmate), and the future U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye’s mother hailed from Maui, so he also could claim a genetic link to Maui.

What was the unique Maui environment back then that produced so many strong leaders? Why can’t Mauians in the 2010s drive innovation, political and economic vitality again for the entire State? And think of audacious, idealistic projects in a completely fearless way?

Note: In retrospect, Statehood was not backed by every Maui resident back in 1959. There were groups in the 1950s against Statehood, which ushered in societal problems in Hawai’i that we still debate and agonize today for solutions, but that is another blog post.


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