Civil rights passion motivates Calif tax proponent

By Juliet Williams

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2012 2:35 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 20, 2012, file photo, Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters about his tax initiative before speaking at the California Optometric Association in Sacramento, Calif. Brown finally succeeded in forging a compromise tax-hike initiative with a California teachers union, a deal he said increases the chances of success in November. Yet just the day after that deal was announced, the proponent of another tax proposal contributed another $1.5 million to her budding campaign, illustrating the difficulty Brown has had in clearing the field for his initiative. That proponent, wealthy Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger, is a first-time player on California's statewide political scene and has emerged as the governor's foil in the tax drama that has enveloped the capital for months.

Rich Pedroncelli, File, Associated Press

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.

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