James Kealoha was born on April 29, 1908, in Pahoa on Hawaii island to Lee Chau and Alice Makanui Kealoha. His father was a Cantonese immigrant who had come to Hawaii as a plantation laborer. While growing up James was raised by his grandparents, whose name he assumed. Later he decided to add Kimo as his middle name. In the Chinese community in Hawaii, he was commonly known as Lee Yat Wo.
He graduated from Hilo High School in 1926 and started working as a clerk for Kwong See Wo, a grocery store in Hilo. In 1929 he married Muilan Young, and together they had two daughters, Leihulu Emma and Leiohu Lillie. In the next year he opened his own grocery, which he operated until 1948.
In 1934, Kealoha was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives, serving as speaker pro tem. He was elected for a second term two years later. In 1938, he successfully ran as a Democrat for a seat in the Territorial Senate, where he served as president pro tem. That same year, he switched to the Republican Party, expressing his unhappiness with the in-fighting amongst island Democrats. People often referred to Kealoha as the “Wonder Boy of Hawaiian politics” because he consistently won elections by sizable margins.
In 1940 Kealoha was elected to the Hawaii County Board of Supervisors, where he won re-election for three successive terms. In 1946, he suffered his first-ever defeat in his political career, losing in a bid for Hawaii County Chairman. In 1948, he ran again, winning the first of six consecutive terms as Hawaii County Chairman.
Kealoha served for years as Hawaii County Chairman, because of his popularity and leadership, was selected in 1959 by the Republican Party as its candidate for lieutenant governor in the state of Hawaii’s first gubernatorial election, running alongside William F. Quinn, the party’s candidate for governor. The pairing worked well, as Quinn and Kealoha defeated their Democratic opponents John A. Burns and Mitsuyuki Kido. Kealoha was the first Chinese American and Native Hawaiian to be elected as a lieutenant governor in the United States.
Kealoha’s term as lieutenant governor was described as “unpleasant” for him (Kim). Governor Quinn was not confident in allowing a Native Hawaiian, even a friend like Kealoha to make important decisions on his behalf. Kealoha found himself relegated to presiding at ceremonial functions. He also had disagreements with Governor Quinn about the issue of political patronage (Kim).
A highlight of his term as lieutenant governor came in 1960 when Kealoha gained national attention after ordering an audit of ballots cast in the close presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The election nationwide was so close, Hawaiʻi effectively had the power to decide the winner. Kealoha certified the vote total in favor of fellow Republican Nixon resulting in the call of national Democrats for a recount. The recounts were tied up in the Hawaiʻi State Judiciary. Confusion led to crisis as the Democrats submitted their three electoral votes for Kennedy while at the same time Republicans submitted their three electoral votes for Nixon. The result was finally resolved on the floor of the United States Senate during the electoral college certification process.
After growing tensions between Kealoha and Quinn, especially on role of the Lieutenant governor. Kealoha challenged Quinn in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1962, characterizing himself as a “native son” and a “local boy” in what was described as “a bitter contest” (Kim). Quinn prevailed, garnering 44,095 votes to 33,277 for Kealoha (Boylan). Quinn, in a quest for reconciliation, appointed Kealoha as the executive officer for the Hawaii exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.
Later in the general election of that year, Quinn was soundly defeated by his Democratic opponent, John Burns. Some analysts have said that the decision by Kealoha to challenge Governor Quinn in the primary cost the Republicans the election (Kim). For many voters the primary was another triumph of the Haole over the Hawaiian, a recurring theme with the Republican Party, causing voters to defect to the Democrats or refused to vote.
After losing in 1962, Kealoha still had political aspirations but failed to win an election again. In 1966 he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against incumbent Democrat Spark Matsunaga and was defeated. Of note in that campaign was Kealoha’s vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam which shocked fellow Republicans and enthused Democrats in their election efforts (Harada). In 1968 he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Hawaii island, losing to Shunichi Kimura.
In addition to his defeats at the polls, Kealoha endured two business setbacks. In 1967, he filed bankruptcy in connection with his involvement in a restaurant and show concession at the Montreal Expo in Canada (Cavaliero and Sherman). In 1977, he and his wife were victimized in a hotel and condominium scam that also resulted in bankruptcy. In his later years Kealoha grew papayas in Hawaii and owned a farm in Salem, Oregon. He died on August 24, 1983, in Honolulu with interment at Homelani Cemetery in Hilo.
In 1963, James Kealoha Beach Park on Hawaii Island was named in his honor. Also known to residents as “4-Miles,” the park is located four miles from the Hilo Post Office, which has been historically considered the starting point for all mileage markers originating from Hilo (Clark 25). James Kealoha Beach Park is featured in a song on the 1979 album Na Pana Kaulana o Keaukaha by Edith Kanakaole.