Elmer Cravalho was a rare individual who made a mark on both Maui and Hawaii history. A man of considerable intelligence and energy, he wielded tremendous power on state and county stages for 25 years.
But in the days following his death on June 27 at the age of 90, the obituaries for Cravalho that appeared in The Maui News and Honolulu Star-Advertiser amounted to thin hagiography. They lacked both context and color, though both publications possessed decades worth of archives they could have mined for expansive obituaries that explored Cravalho’s achievements and controversies–both of which were plentiful in his life.
A Speaker of both the Territorial and State House of Representatives in the 1950s and 1960s, Cravalho eventually became Maui County’s first mayor. Though a powerful lifelong Democrat, one of his closest friends through the years was Hannibal Tavares, a committed Republican and giant in his own right.
“He was brilliant at managing people and money,” Dick Mayer, who had been appointed to the Maui Planning Commission by Cravalho, said shortly after Cravalho’s death. In his 1991 oral history that’s archived at the University of Hawaii, former Maui County Supervisor and Councilman Richard Caldito called Cravalho “the greatest leadership that Maui ever had.” Howard Nakamura, who served as Cravalho’s planning director in the early 1970s, echoed that point. “There’s no question he’s the single most important person in the history of Maui County,” he told me.
Though Cravalho entered politics opposing Big Business, he was also a builder. Go to the Kalana O Maui building that houses the highest offices of county government today and look at the dedication plaque: of all the names listed, Cravalho’s dwarfs them all.
In their 1985 book Land and Power in Hawaii, George Cooper and Gavan Daws explained why Cravalho was so unique–a reason that resonates with us to this day: “Of all mayors in the history of contemporary Hawaii, Cravalho was among the most insistent on large landowners and developers providing substantial community benefits as a price of getting county support for their projects.”
But Cravalho could also be temperamental, ruthless, even vindictive. “Elmer… hurt a lot of people, too,” Caldito recalled in his oral history. “I don’t want to use the word ‘hate,’ but the thing that people do not like [about] Elmer is that if you do not favor him or work for him, he will never appoint you to anything or never do you any more favors after that. There are a lot of politicians that forget about things like that after the election, but not Elmer.”
Now, using extensive newspaper, oral history and library research, as well as newly declassified documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Army obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, I’ll attempt to provide a more thorough look at Cravalho’s tremendous impact on Maui and Hawaii history. It’s a story of high and low drama, full of anti-communist paranoia, incredible ambition and vicious extortion. While this doesn’t come close to a full biography of Cravalho, virtually none of what you’re about to read appeared in any of his obituaries.
Be warned: this story raises questions we may never answer. Political pollster and columnist Daniel W. Tuttle anticipated this in his oral history, which he recorded back in 1990.
“He deserves his place in history,” Tuttle said. “He’s a giant… [but] Elmer’s well known for keeping his cards very close to his chest.”
Theresa Browning, Cravalho’s only surviving sibling, chose not to comment for this story. “Enough has been said after his passing,” she said. “He was very private. He would not want any more articles written about him.”
I: GETTING ORGANIZED
Elmer Franklin Cravalho was born in Paia on Feb. 19, 1926. He attended Keokea School, Maui High and the University of Hawaii, though he never got a college degree.
Like many of the Hawaii Democrats who went on to shape state history in the latter half of the 20th century, Cravalho entered politics in 1954. Though he was a school teacher by trade (he taught 7th and 8th grade in Kula, Paia and then Haiku), he was also ambitious, as longtime Democratic Party figure Masaru “Pundy” Yokouchi made clear in his 1989 oral history.
“In fact, Najo [Nadao Yoshinaga, another powerful Maui Democratic Party official who eventually got elected to the state Senate] called us one night, told us about this young, promising guy Upcountry, that he was very impressed with,” Yokouchi recalled. “And in order to give him some exposure, because he wasn’t well known on Maui, he said, ‘Let’s make him party chairman.’ So, in 1954, they named Elmer Cravalho, who was a real freshman in politics, as a party chairman. And ever since then, you know, Elmer led the ticket.”
In his oral history, Yokouchi was very careful to avoid saying that Yoshinaga had “recruited” Cravalho. “But I’m sure he played a role in encouraging them, like Elmer Cravalho, for instance,” Yokouchi said. “Elmer [had] the ambition. And Elmer Cravalho, nobody recruits him. Elmer Cravalho is Elmer Cravalho. So, Najo recognized his talents right away. And that’s how he asked the people to support him for party chairmanship.”
Cravalho got himself elected to the Territorial House of Representatives that year. He wouldn’t lose another election for nearly 40 years.
That year, 1954, was a landslide, shifting power in the state away from the Republicans–a defeat from which they’ve never recovered. Cravalho was out front from almost the beginning, due to his intelligence, ambition and ties to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). These days, we think of the ILWU as any other union in Hawaii, but in the early 1950s, many in the U.S.–including those who ran law enforcement agencies like the FBI–considered the union to be a front for Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Maintaining close ties to the ILWU carried some element of risk.
“Elmer was beholden to the ILWU,” former Lieutenant Governor and territorial and state Representative Thomas Gill recalled in his 1988 oral history. “They used to scare the hell out of him, and in fact, he mentioned that a couple of times. So he went where the [power] was.”
The Cold War paranoia at the time was excessive, even by the standards of the time (click here to read more on how Hollywood portrayed the fight against communists in Hawaii). Proof of that arrived in the form of a two-page document, released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request I sent to the FBI immediately following news of Cravalho’s death. The very existence of this document is an affront to anyone who cares about civil liberties (scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the documents or click here for a PDF of them).
Created on March 1, 1959 and classified CONFIDENTIAL (meaning the Army considered the release of the document to the public could reasonably be expected to harm national security), the document is a “Domestic Intelligence Summary” written and distributed by an intelligence unit within the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division. The document summarizes Cravalho’s ties to the ILWU, which apparently the U.S. Army considered a potential threat to national security.
In 1972, the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee strongly criticized the U.S. Army for spying on civilians–an outrageous and dangerous violation of its charter. “Individuals described in these files have, at least until January of 1971, included some public officials, including Congressmen and Governors,” states the committee’s 104-page Army Surveillance of Civilians report. ““[T]he size of the files confirms other reports that the surveillance dates back not to the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967, but to the reestablishment of Army counterintelligence on the eve of the Second World War… “[I]t appears that the vacuum-cleaner approach of collecting all possible information resulted in great masses of data on individuals which was valuable for no legitimate (or even illegitimate) military purpose.”
Though the political witch hunts of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy had long ended by 1959, Cold War fear of communism was still spurring federal and military surveillance of potential subversives–especially those in organized labor.
“CRAVALHO has actively supported measures favorable to the ILWU,” states the intelligence summary. “On 18 April 1957, CRAVALHO, [name redacted] and Nadao Yoshinaga, all Democratic representatives from Maui, introduced House Bill 754. This bill was intended to repeal the Dock Seizure Law, which allows government seizure of waterfront facilities in the event of a crippling dock strike. House Bill 754 was a key objective in the 1956-1957 legislative program. In point of fact, the repeal bill was defeated, and the Dock Seizure Law is still in effect.”
Let’s unpack this. It was during World War II that the ILWU first presented serious challenges to the big plantations that ran Hawaii. “[B]asically between 1944 and 1947, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) successfully organized the Hawaii sugar and pineapple plantations industry-wide, as well as the waterfront,” states Land and Power in Hawaii. “The result was momentous. From then on, big business in the Islands had big labor to contend with, in the form of an organization that was Hawaii’s first multi-racial union, Marxist-oriented, tightly organized, led by men who were highly motivated, capable and militant, with a membership that grew to a peak of 37,000.”
In 1949, the ILWU led a massive strike on the Honolulu docks. Longshoremen, long infuriated at the fact that their West Coast counterparts were making far more money than they were, finally walked off the job on May 1. Though workers promised to continue to unload relief ships, they didn’t extend their good grace to liners like the SS Lurline, which docked at Pier 11 in Honolulu on May 9, according to historian Sanford Zalburg’s 1979 book A Spark Is Struck! The ship would remain there for 157 days.
“The 1949 Longshore Strike that lasted six months and crippled the Territory’s economy was the greatest single battle in that campaign,” states an essay on labor history produced by the University of Hawaii’s Center for Labor Education and Research. “The employers and their spokesmen in the media seized upon the popular fears of the day and tried to portray the unionists as communists.”
By Aug. 6, 1949, the Territorial Legislature had enough and passed the Dock Seizure Act. Two years later, the FBI arrested ILWU leader Jack Hall, as well as six other union officials, for the crime of allegedly advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. A federal court eventually convicted Hall, but an appellate court later threw out the conviction.
This was the environment Cravalho–as close an ally to the “working man” Maui has ever seen–stepped into when he rode the ILWU’s coattails into the Territorial House of Representatives during the 1954 revolution. Though there is no evidence in the files released to MauiTime that surveillance from the Army ever harmed Cravalho, its very existence infringed on his civil rights. We can only speculate on how many others seeking social and economic justice were under similar surveillance by the army.
II: SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE
Cravalho moved up fast in the Territorial House, though he quickly found that he had to scramble when the Legislature wasn’t in session. “[B]etween sessions I worked as a janitor,” Cravalho recalled in his own oral history, which he recorded in 1977, while he was still Mayor of Maui County. “Got $50 a month. That paid for my water, electricity, rice, bare essentials. Raised my vegetables in the backyard.” During his second term, he got a job as officer manager at Mutual of Omaha making $225 a month.
In any case, Cravalho got himself chosen to be Vice Speaker of the House in just two years, then Finance Committee Chairman in 1957. Then in 1958, Cravalho managed to win the speakership, through a complex maneuver that involved building a coalition of Republicans to topple then-Speaker O. Vincent Esposito–an event discussed in some detail in the confidential 1959 Army intelligence summary on Cravalho.
“In December 1958, CRAVALHO was one of the so-called [Jack] “Burns/ILWU” faction of the Democratic Party of Hawaii who bolted the party caucus,” states the report. “CRAVALHO, together with 14 colleagues, rebelled when it became apparent to them that the majority group of O. Vincent Esposito intended to omit their faction, as well as the Republican minority, from important committee positions. As a result, CRAVALHO and [name redacted] negotiated with the Republican Party of Hawaii and formed a coalition out of which CRAVALHO emerged as Speaker of the House.”
It was a brazen, risky move. But it also worked. Cravalho would hold the speakership for eight years. His time in office bridged Hawaii’s transition to statehood–indeed, it was Cravalho who took the famous call from then-Representative Jack Burns in Washington on Aug. 21, 1959 and then announced to his House colleagues that Hawaii was now the 50th state in the union.
According to the late political analyst and columnist Daniel Tuttle (he died in 2006), Governor Jack Burns–and really, the whole state–owed Cravalho a great deal. In fact, Tuttle even described Cravalho as having been a “tower of strength” for Burns.
“He contributed a great deal to Burns’ career,” Tuttle told his oral history interviewers in 1990. “He supplied the New Hawaii Program for Jack Burns. When Jack Burns’ administration, ‘63, ‘64, ‘65 period, was faltering, Elmer stepped in with a legislative program. Jack Burns would get up and address the legislature in his state of the state address, talk only about destiny and dreams, but have nothing practical. So, who had to pull a Democratic program together again, a Ia ‘54? This was, see, a decade later after the ‘54 period, so he [Cravalho] had to pull together a program for Democrats, which he duly labeled–he owes me a little debt ‘cause he picked up a phrase out of one of my columns–the New Hawaii Program. He sold it as such, and Jack Burns adopted it, and pretty soon Jack Burns was talking about the New Hawaii Program. (As a result), in 1966 [election], and again in 1970 [election], Jack Burns still had things to talk about.”
Adam “Bud” Smyser, another longtime newspaper columnist, talked about Cravalho in his 1990 oral history. According to Smyser, Cravalho was all-powerful in the House.
“Elmer Cravalho is a name to be reckoned with,” Smyser said. “He simply ran the House so efficiently that if he sat across from you, as I’m sitting across from you, and said, ‘The House will pass that bill,” that was as good as a vote on the vote.”
But such power came at a price. Indeed, Tuttle described Cravalho’s vote-wrangling methods as near Lyndon Johnson in both their effectiveness and brutality.
“His method was quite effective, and also-I thought we talked about this before–it was almost ruthless,” Tuttle recalled. “He’s a single (unmarried) person. He didn’t waste any of his time. He didn’t go out to all the night spots. The other members of the house did. He knew where people were, what ‘crimes’ they had committed–I’d put that crimes in quotes–in other words, he maintained his control, in large part, ‘cause he had a ‘little something’ on practically every member of the house. If they’d get out of line, (he could say), ‘Hey, buddy, if you don’t want this to be known, you’re going to come along with me.’ In other words, Elmer was not above using a little bit of intimidation or a little bit of threats.”
In his 1977 oral history, the writer Daniel Boylan asked Cravalho about something that Pundy Yokouchi had told him–that Cravalho was like a “stiletto” who “played violent politics.”
“I would say that we played to win,” Cravalho said. “Not to lose. And once a decision is made–I’m speaking about myself–I pursue it. And I do not get derailed or detracted… The storm may come and I plant my feet firmly and I sway, and the leaves may get torn off and some limbs may break but the root system is still there.” Cravalho was clearly being modest, because a few minutes later, he bragged to Boylan about how he’d once punished former legislator Frank Loo (“He was always the person that you couldn’t trust”) by eliminating his district from that year’s Capital Improvement Budget.
Cravalho told Boylan that his strengths in the House were “listening and tight organization.” He said he read every bill that came out of committee–“I didn’t trust staff alone,” he said. I read it to see if there was anything there [that] was going to ruffle anybody.” He also said he never lost a vote.
“Never lost a vote?” Boylan asked.
“Never lost [a] vote on anything that I wanted,” Cravalho said.
“In eight years?”
“In eight years,” Cravalho said. “On anything that I really want, I never lost a vote. Because I would never put anything on the floor that I wasn’t sure of.”
While Rep. Gill’s earlier description of Cravalho as “beholden” to the ILWU was mostly true, Cravalho grew so powerful that he did challenge the union on one memorable occasion that dealt directly with Maui politics.
In 1961, “Speaker Cravalho ordered a House Select Committee to investigate a report of undue ILWU pressure exerted on Maui officials,” Sanford Zalburg wrote in his biography of Jack Hall. “The incident, which touched off the investigation, was the delay in the award of a contract to build the Wailuku War Memorial-Convention Hall.”
Cravalho could easily have chosen to ignore the matter. But instead, he put the ILWU in the spotlight. According to Zalburg, the Select Committee held four hearings on the contract. Among the witnesses called were Tom Yagi, the ILWU’s top man on Maui, and Maui County Chairman Eddie Tam. The committee discovered clear evidence that the ILWU was going out of its way to steer county supervisors away from the lowest bidder.
In fact, as Zalburg wrote, on Feb. 16, 1961, “Yagi and other ILWU officials met with the Maui Board of Supervisors at the ILWU Hall on Lower Main Street in Wailuku and urged the Supervisors to award the contract to Tanaka [the second low bidder].” Five days later, ILWU officials called Tam at his home and urged the same thing. But in the end, the supervisors voted 4-3 to award the contract to F & M Contractors, the low bidder.
As it turned out, War Memorial had been a battlefield in an inter-union war, as the Select Committee eventually concluded. “Your Committee believes that one of the purposes of the ILWU is to win out in an organizational battle with AF of L-CIO for the right to represent employers of the construction trades on Maui,” the Select Committee eventually reported. “Such a victory would be enhanced if F & M Contractors Inc., one of the largest construction firms on the island, could be deprived of this contract. The inter-union battle is a matter of common knowledge on Maui.”
From the Territorial (and later State) House of Representatives, Maui must have seem very far off to Cravalho. In fact, even at the time his own Select Committee was exposing his union benefactor’s heavy-handed tactics in Wailuku, Cravalho was plotting to return to the Valley Isle.
III: MAUI’S FIRST MAYOR
Though Cravalho served as Speaker of the House until Eddie Tam’s death in 1966, he started planning his return to Maui as far back as 1959.
As Zalburg recounted in his book on Jack Hall, in 1959, Cravalho, Tom Yagi (the ILWU official from Maui) and Hall met at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant on Kalakaua Ave. in Waikiki (Tiffany & Co. is near there now). Cravalho said he wanted to return to Maui and run against Eddie Tam for Board of Supervisors chairman. According to Cravalho, Hall wasn’t happy, but he remained calm. “He went through all the factors and the needs of the community and where he needed strong leadership, at least in one level of the Legislature. He said, ‘We prefer–if we had our druthers.’ It was not abrupt, nothing like that.”
But according to Yagi, Hall was furious. “Yagi said Hall looked at Cravalho coldly,” Zalburg wrote. “‘I don’t want you to run against Tam,’ he said. ‘I want you to stay on as Speaker of the House. You have a big job ahead of you. You run for chairman [of the Maui County Board of Supervisors] –over my dead body!’” According to Yagi, Hall then walked out.
Needless to say, Cravalho didn’t return to Maui in 1959. But Tam’s death in 1966, and the need for a special election to fill in the remainder of his term, was too much for Cravalho to pass by. He resigned from the House a few weeks after the end of that year’s legislative session. Cravalho narrowly won the special election, squeaking by Manuel Molina with just 139 votes to spare to become Maui County’s Chairman.
Cravalho’s more than a decade as Mayor (changes to the county charter in 1968 reordered local government and created the Maui County Council and office of the Mayor) saw some of the biggest growth in island history. In his 1984 book Kalai‘aina: County of Maui, Wailuku historian Antonio Ramil noted that the year Cravalho returned to Maui, the island had 1,456 hotel and condo rooms. About 189,000 tourists visiting the county that year. A decade later, the number of hotel and condo rooms had multiplied to more than 7,000, with more than a million visitors streaming into Maui.
“Palm trees, kiawe trees and old wooden homes on once sleepy beachfront lands in Lahaina, Kaanapali, Napili and Kapalua on West Maui, and in Kihei, Wailea, and Makena on the South Shore, many of which used to be havens for weekend or holiday fishing trips or outings by local residents, gave way to concrete, imposing hotel or condominium buildings,” Ramil wrote. “Lands which used to sell for 25 cents per square foot went up as much as $25 per square foot. It became difficult to find a condominium unit for less than $100,000. Some were selling for as much as half a million dollars.”
Cravalho’s time in the Maui Mayor’s office was marked with great contrasts. On the one hand, someone like Hannibal Tavares–a lifelong friend and power-broker who served as Maui’s Mayor in the 1980s–could point out how rude Cravalho could be to Alexander & Baldwin (A&B) executives. In 1972, Tavares went to work for A&B as their Maui lobbyist, and he took a few of his bosses with him when he visited his old friend Cravalho to tell him the news.
Tavares and Cravalho went way back. Both had been teachers on Maui. They were friends, even though Tavares was a Republican who lobbied for big business (before he went to work for A&B, Tavares had lobbied on behalf of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association). But as Tavares recounted in his oral history, Mayor Cravalho was furious at his friend’s new job.
“He looked at me and looked at [then President Allen] Wilcox, and said, ‘Well, all I can say is that it’s a very good deal for A&B. I don’t know whether it’s a good deal for Hannibal,’” Tavares said. After ushering the A&B execs out of his office, Cravalho then took Tavares aside. “I know they need you,” Tavares said Cravalho told him, “but you don’t realize you’re working for a bunch of people that I don’t have a lot of respect for. These guys are double dealers. You can’t take them at their word; they’re not honest…”
Though Cravalho seemed “angry and adamant,” Tavares said he defused it by playing to the Maui roots they shared: “When he got through, I said, ‘Well, Elmer, I look at it this way. If us two Pordagees can’t work this out, neither of us is worth a damn.’ And that just hit his funny bone. He just roared–I thought he was going to fall off his chair. He just laughed, and laughed, and laughed.”
Apparently they did work it all out, because A&B started building the massive South Maui development we now know as Wailea during Cravalho’s time in office. Granted, what eventually went in was a fraction of the massive town originally set to house 50,000 residents that A&B initially promised, but it was built, and Maui’s never been the same since. Indeed, Wailea would never have been built in the first place were it not for Cravalho arranging for the construction of a massive pipeline to carry fresh water from the Iao Aquifer to South Maui–an achievement that did make his obituaries.
Cravalho may not have liked A&B’s executives, but they shared a goal: build up Maui’s tourist industry. And build it they did, creating conditions for an entire service industry to bloom, and eventually supersede Maui’s still largely agrarian economy.
“The things he accomplished,” said Howard Nakamura, his former planning director. “Economic development, infrastructure development, expanded our economic base, affordable housing. He was mayor when all of the county’s affordable housing projects were implemented. He had tremendous vision, and a great love for Maui County.”
Of course, you can’t have this much social change without stirring up controversy–especially when the guy at the top is as liberal and outspoken as Cravalho. And in the spring of 1972, Cravalho found himself the target of a series of vicious attacks by a tiny upstart newspaper run by two guys who had recently moved to Maui. Though The Maui News largely ignored the attacks, the big Honolulu dailies covered it extensively–and that attracted the attention of the FBI.
I know this because shortly after I heard about Cravalho’s death, I mailed a copy of his obituary to the FBI, along with a written request under the Freedom of Information Act for any and all records they might have on him. It’s a common request journalists make when someone of note dies (at which time, the privacy restriction on any FBI files on them gets lifted). In response to my request, the FBI said they had discovered 24 pages of records on Cravalho, of which they sent me 22 (they withheld the remaining two for a variety of reasons, mostly dealing with law enforcement methods; they also forwarded my request to the Department of the Army, which declassified and released the intelligence summary I discussed earlier in this story). The files the FBI sent me were entirely press clippings–Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Maui News. The released files included nothing actually generated by the FBI on the 1972 incident, or any other incident, for that matter.
In any case, the controversy all started on April 6, 1972, at a Maui County Civil Service hearing. There, a private investigator named Roger Marcotte got on the stand and made a sensational claim: that two years prior, he had met with Cravalho and told him that if he didn’t assist two Maui Police officers with their employment troubles, he would “expose him as a homosexual,” according to a partial transcript the hearing later obtained and published by a Honolulu paper (which was included in Cravalho’s FBI file, but the clipping contained no identifying mark as to which paper published it).
The hearing transcript should have been secret, but somehow an upstart little publication called A New Newspaper? obtained it, then published it (along with Cravalho’s statement that Marcotte was a “damned liar”). The paper was the work of two men: James Franklin and Jack Stephens, who had recently moved to Maui and decided to start a paper attacking Cravalho. Franklin especially became the subject of newspaper stories at the time (which, again, were included in the FBI file).
By itself, the story in A New Newspaper? probably wouldn’t have gotten as much play as it did in Honolulu. But on May 10, 1972, Maui County Attorney (the precursor to today’s Corporation Counsel) Arthur T. Ueoka did something stupid: he wrote a letter to A New Newspaper? Publisher Jack Stephens warning him not to publish the Marcotte transcript, saying it would only “serve to do substantial irreparable harm and injury to Mayor Cravalho’s character and integrity” (the Honolulu Star-Bulletin later reprinted the letter in its entirety).
Cravalho denied asking Ueoka to write the letter. He also denied asking Maui Police officers to remove copies of A New Newspaper? from newsstand racks, though that too apparently happened on at least two occasions. But the damage was done.
“The administration’s overreaction to the New Newspaper is indicative of the Mayor’s growing frustration over a rash of criticism he has encountered in recent months,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin writer Dave Shapiro wrote in a June 9, 1972 story. “Cravalho, a statewide political power, sees all the criticism as a conspiracy to stop him from becoming governor in 1974.”
According to Hannibal Tavares’ oral history, Cravalho was in fact considering a run for the governor’s office in 1974. He certainly had the experience and name-recognition. Why he ultimately stayed out of the race isn’t something Cravalho ever explained publicly.
IV: ‘I’M GOING TO RESIGN’
In 1978, Cravalho was at the height of his power. And he was a long way from having to work as a janitor. In the oral history he recorded a year prior, Cravalho talked with great satisfaction of the controlling interest he held in one of the island’s largest cattle ranches. “We have, I’d say about 20,000 acres of land under lease,” he said in his oral history. “And we run about 4,000 head of cattle. And we make money.”
Cravalho had an interest in so much land that in 1969 a U.S. Navy aircraft on its way to Kaho‘olawe accidentally dropped a 500-pound bomb on some of Cravalho’s land. The bomb didn’t detonate, but the incident infuriated Cravalho, who had already opposed the Navy’s use of the island as a target range.
In any case, by 1978 the sleazy A New Newspaper? stories were six years in the past. County Attorney Ueoka’s warning to Jack Stephens back in 1972 had proven groundless–Cravalho’s reputation on Maui was solid. In 1978, Cravalho easily and overwhelmingly won re-election, beating his opponent–Al Rodrigues–by more than 12,000 votes. He was effective, popular and in charge.
“Cravalho had entrenched himself as the undisputed political leader in the County of Maui,” Ramil wrote in Kalai‘aina. “There were occasions when he would humor his listeners at gatherings by observing that in the County some people thought that ‘god’ was spelled ‘E-L-M-E-R.’”
Or so he thought. Just seven months after his re-election, Cravalho shocked the county by announcing that he was quitting. He gave no reason, but made clear that there was no turning back. Accounts of Cravalho’s resignation announcement made for dramatic reading in The Maui News.
“Saying in a quaking voice that there would be ‘no changes, no second thoughts, no regrets,’ Mayor Elmer Cravalho announced Tuesday that he would quit his office Sept. 11,” The Maui News reported on June 20, 1979.
“Each success, each achievement… left me with less time to be where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do,” Cravalho said during the 2pm press conference he’d held on June 19, 1979, according to The Maui News. “I know that many will question my motives… and advance many reasons for my action which are not contained in this message. But there are none… ”
According to The Maui News, Cravalho gave no explanation for his sudden and surprising resignation, then ended his press conference without taking questions from reporters.
“The mayor was emotional throughout the speech,” The Maui News reported. “The usually feisty, confident mayor held a tight grip on the podium in front of him, his voice nearly cracking with emotion during certain parts of his speech.”
Cravalho had often threatened to walk away before, but as Ramil pointed out in his book, he always came back, ran for reelection and won. One time in 1971, he’d even apparently vanished from the island itself–with no explanation.
“Mayor Elmer F. Cravalho has been ordered to rest by a doctor and will be ‘unavailable for at least the rest of the week,’ according to Acting Mayor Shigeto (Mustard) Murayama,” The Maui News reported on Aug. 26, 1971. “Cravalho has not been at his office since last Thursday [Aug. 19, 1971]. He is believed to be off the island but his exact whereabouts is not known.”
Cravalho never publicly explained where he was that week, and The Maui News published no follow-up that we could find. Instead, the incident just passed into local lore, an example of Cravalho’s sometimes mercurial temperament.
It was the same for Cravalho’s 1979 decision to leave politics. Cravalho never publicly gave a reason for his sudden exit (and his obituaries made no attempt to explain his sudden exit from office). For many years, it was Maui County’s greatest political mystery. But in his 1991 oral history, Hannibal Tavares offered a compelling explanation of Cravalho’s exit–one that’s still surprising, even to this day, though it is in line with Cravalho’s personality.
“He put up some trial balloons for governor [in both 1974 and 1978],” Tavares told his interviewers. “And that didn’t pan out the way he wanted it to be. He didn’t have enough assurance. Then he started having trouble with the council.”
According to Tavares, Cravalho had enjoyed an easy time with the Maui County Council for much of his tenure as mayor. But by the time of the negotiations over the fiscal year 1977-’78 budget, that was no longer true. At the time he announced his resignation, Cravalho told The Maui News that recent problems with the council over his budget played no role in his decision to resign. But to paraphrase Tavares, the council was no longer so keen on spelling god “E-L-M-E-R.”
“They [the council] had changed it drastically,” Tavares recalled. “And the changes they made angered him quite a bit. When it came back to him, he did a whole number of item vetoes, with a veto message that went back to the council. The council overrode every one of this vetoes, and that was the first time that he had ever had something like that happen to him. And that annoyed him to no end. He could not believe that the council would not follow his leadership, especially in budget, because he was very good at that. He was very good at finance.”
Add to that trouble from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the building of the Lahaina Sewage Treatment Plant, which wasn’t going well. According to Ramil’s book, the EPA “had threatened to withdraw all or a part of a $10 million grant for the construction of the Lahaina sewage treatment plant, which was behind construction schedule by two years.” Indeed, just four days after Cravalho announced his resignation as mayor, The Maui News reported that county sewer head Kenneth Y. S. Kong was “suspended,” though Public Works director Wayne Uemae “denied that the suspension came about as a result of the county’s problems with the Lahaina Sewage Treatment Plant.”
It was all a big headache to Cravalho, according to Tavares. “[H]e became kind of disgruntled,” Tavares said in his 1991 oral history. “And when he told me that he was planning to resign, I didn’t believe it. I said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You have to finish your term, Elmer.’”
“No, I’m sick and tired of taking all this crap,” Cravalho said, according to Tavares. “These people simply will not follow what I’m trying to do. I’m going to resign.”
Tavares then said that Cravalho told him to “get ready.”
“What do you mean?” Tavares said he asked Cravalho.
“Well, if I resign, I think you’d be the logical guy to take my place,” Cravalho said, according to Tavares’ oral history.
“Well, I haven’t given it any thought at all,” Tavares said.
“Well, start thinking about it, because I think that’s going to happen,” Cravalho said.
Though Cravalho said he’d quit on Sept. 11, 1979, he actually left office much earlier, on July 24.
“He said he looked forward to relationships with his friends and neighbors that would ‘no longer depend on the presence or absence of a title,’” according to The Maui News story that ran the day after Cravalho left his office for the last time. “There is no anger, no animosity, no hard feelings, no nothing,” Cravalho said, according to the paper.
He was 53 years old, still relatively young for a politician, but Cravalho would never hold elected office again.
V. THE LATER YEARS
Cravalho’s exit handed the mayorship to Managing Director Claro Capili. But he merely kept the office occupied for Tavares, who easily won the special mayoral election later that year. “[H]is 14,110 votes exceeded the combined total votes of the other 17 candidates,” Ramil wrote in Kalai‘aina. Tavares would hold the office for 11 years–the longest time in office of any Maui County mayor.
Tavares chose not to run for reelection in 1990. Instead, Cravalho saw an opportunity for a comeback and offered himself as a candidate. Running under the slogan “A mayor for all the people,” he won endorsements from the United Public Workers union and SHOPO. He also turned on his old friend Hannibal Tavares.
“I had a lot of trouble with Elmer because he decided, for whatever reason, to zero in on my administration and was very critical of my administration,” Tavares said in his 1991 oral history. “And I thought, hey, I’m not his opponent. That’s a mistake. And I told him so. But by that time, I guess too much had happened.”
Of course, Tavares had fired his own shots at Cravalho. He publicly blamed him for leaving a big mess at the Lahaina Sewage Treatment Plant that he had to clean up and even released a letter from the EPA to the press that contradicted Cravalho’s claim that the federal government had exonerated his administration of wrongdoing.
Cravalho’s campaign raised more than $206,000 that year, and spent nearly $145,000 of it. By contrast, Maui County Councilmember Linda Lingle, his leading opponent, raised $207,000, but only spent $80,000 or so. In the end, Lingle beat him by seven percentage points. Immediately after the election, her campaign attributed her victory in part to voters’ queasiness over Cravalho’s final months in office as Mayor.
“Lingle felt a big gap existed in the information that had been given to the voters regarding Cravalho, [campaign manager Sheri] Lowsan said, in areas that included the questions surrounding his resignation from office in 1979 and his record of managing construction of the Lahaina Sewage Treatment Plant,” The Maui News reported on Nov. 4, 1990.
Though that was Elmer Cravalho’s last election, he didn’t stay out of the public eye. He spent his last decades running the Kula Credit Union–which he’d help start back in the early 1950s. There, he held court for the next generation of Maui public officials who sought his advice and insight.
He also found himself back in politics. In the early 1990s, he chaired the Upcountry Community Plan. Then, after Lingle got herself elected Hawaii’s first Republican Governor since William Quinn’s 1959 victory, Mayor James “Kimo” Apana appointed Cravalho to the Maui County Board of Water Supply. He was still progressive, but in 2000 Cravalho found himself in the curious spot of not only defending a county Memorandum of Understanding with Alexander & Baldwin over its water rights, but getting it approved and signed by the board before the public had a chance to comment on it. When resident Mark Sheehan (who would later help found the SHAKA Movement), attempted to testify against the MOU, Cravalho ruled him “out of order,” according to a story that ran in the July 2000 issue of Environment Hawaii.
“You wish to express thoughts on the agreement?” Cravalho, then the Board Chairman, asked Sheehan, according to the Environment Hawaii story. After Sheehan said yes, Cravalho told him no. “The chair will have to deny your request,” Cravalho said, according to the story. “The reason for that is that it’s taken out of order. Your opportunity to express yourself will be given immediately after the signing of the agreement.”
He was Elmer Cravalho, a living legend on Maui, telling Sheehan that he could only comment on an agreement after the Board had taken action on it–an insult to the democratic principles that Cravalho had championed his entire adult life. Once a dedicated, energetic enemy of Big Business he had become in his final years a staunch defender of the status quo. Once considered so “beholden” to the “communist” ILWU that the U.S. Army had kept a file on him, Cravalho was now swatting away citizen complaints against a county deal with mighty Alexander & Baldwin.
It’s certainly possible that Cravalho’s views on companies like A&B had mellowed by this time; indeed, this might be the fate of everyone who spends a lifetime in politics. The revolutionary who wins must inevitably become the ruler, and that means compromising. There are ways to do it that don’t trample civil rights, of course, but in the end, no one in charge in a democracy gets everything he or she believes in.
Looking over his two dozen years as an elected official, it’s clear that Cravalho fought a lot, and won a lot. We all may not agree with his ideological evolution, but we can’t deny that his actions changed Maui and Hawaii. Whether that change, on balance, made us better is a question that remains very much open.
I could not have done this story without the treasure known as found at UH Manoa’s Center for Oral History. Many of their oral histories, recorded by some of the most important and powerful figures of Hawaii history in the 20th century and containing much valuable information I haven’t seen published elsewhere, are online and free to access (Elmer Cravalho’s oral history is sadly not online, but is accessible at UH Manoa’s Hamilton Library). For more information, go to Oralhistory.hawaii.edu.
Research provided by Deborah Caulfield Rybak
Cover photo courtesy Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Cover design: Darris Hurst