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.
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.