SACRAMENTO — In a second-floor walk-up near the Capitol, two children of one of the world’s richest men used to slump into armchairs in the evening and gripe about California education, unwittingly laying the groundwork for a potential upheaval in state politics.
That was a decade ago, and the apartment was a crash pad for Molly Munger, a Pasadena lawyer and the eldest daughter of Warren Buffett’s billionaire business partner. Having traded in a successful career as a corporate litigator to become a civil rights attorney after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, she was in the capital often to help low-income neighborhoods fight for school construction money.
Her younger brother Charles Munger Jr., a Stanford physicist, would swing by after meetings of a commission on math and science curricula, which he joined because he disliked the way his son was taught math in Palo Alto schools.
The siblings’ twin crusades became vastly divergent visions of how to fix California. Both will be before voters in the fall.
Molly, 64, a steely Harvard Law School graduate whom a friend calls “a cross between Catherine Deneuve and Michelle Pfeiffer” sees California strangling its future by underfunding schools. She is pushing a $10-billion income-tax hike to give them a boost, defying, in the process, a Democratic establishment that fears her measure could hurt the governor’s tax proposal expected to be on the same ballot.
Charles, 56, whose bow ties and professorial demeanor belie his intensity, thinks California is generally overtaxed. Having helped finance the move to stop lawmakers from drawing their own voting districts, he now supports a measure that could neuter the Democratic Party’s biggest backers by barring unions from spending members’ dues on politicians.
The pair has drawn criticism for using the family wealth to pursue pet projects.
“Just because you have been given money in your life doesn’t mean you should be able to rewrite the Constitution,” said Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio.
Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who has worked with Molly Munger for 20 years, countered that the siblings have more in common with regular Californians than politicians do.
“They’re both after solutions,” Rice said. “They’re tired of dysfunction — they and the rest of California’s population. It’s just that Charlie and Molly are in a better position to do something about it.”
The Munger patriarch was born in Omaha, where he briefly worked at the grocery store run by Warren Buffett’s family. After Harvard Law School, he moved to South Pasadena with his wife and first child, Molly.
The youngster attended the tony Westridge School for Girls. “It was an ivy-covered place where we wore crisp uniforms,” Molly recalled in a recent speech, “and put on plays in French and sang songs in Latin.”
At 14, she asked her parents to send her to John Muir High, known as the public school where Pasadena’s black children went.
It was the zenith of the civil rights movement, and she was electrified in her new environs. “That gave me an image of a successful, diverse community and how all kinds of people blossom when their talents are invested in,” she said in an interview. It also taught her the strength of well-funded public schools.
Decades later, that lesson returned to her as she watched from a downtown high-rise as smoke blanketed Los Angeles. She was a partner at a major law firm, but that felt hollow amid the riots that followed the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King Jr.
Molly joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. With Rice, she won a landmark lawsuit requiring the state to stop shortchanging minority neighborhoods of school construction money. She was going to Sacramento so often that she rented a place, furnishing it from Ikea. There, she found that one of her brothers was also thinking about education.
Initially, Charles Jr., the first child of his father’s second marriage, seemed to be following in his oldest sister’s liberal footsteps. As a teenager, he made phone calls for Jimmy Carter’s first presidential campaign.
“I wanted a good man to be president,” he said.
But he became disillusioned with Carter: “It’s not enough to have a good heart; you have to have a good head,” Charles said — and joined the GOP. He remained a political bystander until his son entered first grade.
He and his wife, attorney Charlotte Lowell, were upset that the curriculum emphasized theory rather than drills. “Sometimes you have to learn something fluently,” he said, “and then the deep reasons behind it.”
He carried that ground-up approach into politics. He joined the state curriculum commission, where he judged the Legislature’s education bills to be of scandalously low quality. He blamed state lawmakers who gerrymandered their districts, faced no real challengers on election day and “were answerable to no one,” Charles said in an interview.
He became a supporter of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who needed funding for a ballot measure to create a citizens redistricting panel. He gave more than $10 million to the effort. Voters went along.
The millions had been earned by Charles Munger Sr., who had partnered with his old Omaha acquaintance, Buffett. The elder Munger also founded a blue-chip Los Angeles law firm and theDaily Journal Corp., which publishes legal newspapers. He gave each of his eight children funds to spend as they saw fit.
Charles Jr. uses his for Republican causes. He argues that the party should be more centrist, especially on social issues, and gave more than $700,000 last month to an effort to defeat hard-liners in the state primary.
He also is helping to fund the union-dues measure. It would ban corporations and unions from donating to politicians’ campaigns and bar the use of union dues for any other political purpose, without comparable restrictions on businesses. He has given $119,000 to that campaign.
In February, Molly Munger stood before a room of PTA members in Sacramento, gesturing at charts showing school funding in free fall.
Molly and her allies had pinned their hopes on 2012: Gov. Jerry Brown had talked of a plan to raise taxes, and a liberal turnout was forecast to support President Obama. But Brown had not announced anything, so Molly and a nonprofit she had founded with Rice stepped into the breach.
She created an initiative, she told the PTA, to raise California’s graduated income tax so that nearly everyone paid something but the rich paid more. She contrasted her plan with a graph on federal taxes, which dipped at the top end.
“That’s Warren Buffet’s secretary right there,” she said, a reference to the investor’s famous statement that his secretary pays a higher federal tax rate than he does. She got a standing ovation.
Outside the conference room, reporters asked if Molly would drop her measure. Brown had by now unveiled his and publicly called on her to get out of the way.
Molly, a former Democrat who is no longer registered with a major party, was defiant. “I don’t think we’d have a very good, functioning democracy if we just did what one person at the top wanted,” she told reporters evenly. “We think the governor doesn’t have as good an idea this year as we do.”
Molly has put more than $8 million of her own money into her campaign and said she’s willing to finance the entire effort — which could easily exceed $30 million. She’s become a prime target of the governor’s allies, who accuse her of being egotistical and having a political tin ear.
Molly’s brother, who learned of his sister’s proposal in a newspaper article, said he admired her for fighting the political establishment.
“She knows from our conversations,” he said, “what awaits someone who tries to take on very powerful politicians.”