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Molly Munger, California Tax Proponent, Motivated By Civil Rights Passion

Molly Munger

By JULIET WILLIAMS   03/27/12 04:32 PM ET  AP

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- After decades as a civil rights attorney, Molly Munger has the resume to prove her devotion to education equality, children's civil rights and California's public schools. Unlike most other activists, she also has a personal fortune to pursue her causes.

Her decision this year to put millions behind a ballot initiative seeking to raise income taxes to benefit public schools has thrust her into an unlikely role as Gov. Jerry Brown's chief political foil.

The Democratic governor has his own tax hike headed to the November ballot and has urged Munger to drop hers so that voters will confront just one tax question in the fall. He and his aides fear that multiple initiatives on the same issue will confuse voters and lead to defeat.

Munger's unwillingness to back down despite pressure from Democratic-leaning interest groups she has previously been allied with has led to characterizations of her as self-absorbed and out of touch.

Democratic state Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance has used his Twitter account to question her motives, including a recent post that said Munger's new television ad campaign "shows this is about her ego."

In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Munger said she has been surprised by the reaction from Democrats.

"You sort of hope that the Democrats are the party that stand up for investment in children and in education. Those are two bedrock principles of the Democratic Party," she said.

The pressure on Munger has intensified since March 14, when Brown and a group that was pursuing its own initiative to raise taxes on millionaires announced they had merged proposals.

Munger discussed the merger for the first time with the AP, saying she wanted to tell voters that her initiative is the only one that would dedicate billions of dollars in additional funding to K-12 schools and early childhood education.

A day after Brown announced the merger, Munger donated $1.5 million to her campaign, bringing her total contributions to $3.4 million. She said she was not trying to send a message other than promoting her initiative.

The problem for Democrats who want to rally around just one tax initiative is that Munger is an outsider who is not swayed by the usual political arm-twisting. Those who know her professionally say she is deliberative, collaborative and reasoned.

The 63-year-old daughter of billionaire Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Vice Chairman Charles Munger traces her taste for activism to a pivotal point in adolescence. At the age of 13 or 14, she persuaded her father to let her leave her private, all-girls school for the more diverse John Muir High School in Pasadena, where the family lived. Munger calls that conversation with her father "one of the great moments in my life."

She immersed herself in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Munger said her passion was reawakened when riots erupted in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of white police officers charged in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, sparking a national debate about racial equality.

"By then, I was a in a skyscraper on something like the 34th floor being a partner in a New York law firm and you know, I just saw the disconnect," between the struggle for women's equality and other equality movements, Munger said.

She became western regional counsel for the NAACP, where she lobbied unsuccessfully against Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot initiative that prohibits affirmative action in state government and universities. She successfully sued the state over equitable school funding, winning $1 billion to build new schools in Los Angeles.

Munger later co-founded a liberal-leaning civil rights group called The Advancement Project and has done legal work for social causes she believes in, often for free.

Munger now finds herself on the other side of many longtime allies who are lining up behind Brown's November tax proposal. While Munger was a registered Democrat for most of her life, she has been an independent for about a decade.

Brown's initiative would raise the state's sales tax by a quarter cent for five years and raise taxes on incomes over $250,000 for seven years. It would provide funding for public safety and help fill the state's general fund, which pays for education, social services, prisons and other services.

Munger's proposal would raise taxes on a sliding scale on nearly all incomes for 12 years, devoting nearly all the $10 billion to $12 billion a year it would generate to public schools. In the first four years, it also would divert 30 percent of revenue to pay down state bond debt.

Munger said she has watched California's education system fall into disarray as an advocate for early childhood education programs and has been waiting for an opportunity to help. Her own two sons attended a private high school in Pasadena after she determined her old school had grown "threadbare" by the early 1990s.

She said it's hard to think about more recent cuts to public schools "without pain and shame."

Munger said she developed her ballot initiative after finally detecting a shift in public sentiment, in which she believes Californians might finally be frustrated enough by education cuts to vote for higher taxes.

Former colleagues say that type of careful planning typifies what they have seen in her over the years.

California First 5 Commission Executive Director Kris Perry said Munger was a respected voice and quiet leader during the four years she served on the statewide board. Somewhat ironically, Munger stood out because she was focused on compromise and consensus-building, Perry said.

"I watched her separate herself from the crowd as the person willing to be collaborative. And I watched other people do it another way for just as many years," Perry said.

While Munger's public emergence is new, political debate is natural to her family. Her father loved to provoke discussions among his blended family of eight children and forced them to listen to other points of view, she said.

Her younger brother, Stanford physicist Charles Munger Jr., is a Republican who also has waded into state politics, bankrolling and leading the recent drive to create an independent redistricting commission.

Charles Munger is neutral on his sister's initiative.

"We're respectful, we get along, and we don't consider it a mortal insult if any one of us disagrees. We just expect a reciprocal courtesy," he said of the varied political views within the family. "You can vote and disagree and the conversation goes on."

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Filed by Carly Schwartz  |