When Molly Munger's name surfaced last year as a potential partner on efforts to provide more funding for schools, California State PTA President Carol Kocivar had to turn to Google to find out who she was.
While Munger is a longtime champion for civil rights and education policy issues, the 63-year-old attorney was a virtual unknown in California political circles.
That changed the moment she submitted a $10 billion tax proposal for the ballot.
Munger's proposed initiative to raise state income taxes for all but the poorest Californians to fund schools and early childhood development programs and the personal cash she has pledged to spend to put it on the ballot makes her a major player in the 2012 ballot wars and a thorn in Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's side.
Her measure, one of at least three tax proposals that could qualify for November's ballot, is seen as a threat to the one Brown is pushing. His would generate nearly $7 billion in budget relief by raising income taxes on high earners and enacting a half-cent increase in the sales tax.
Brown and his allies have called for proponents of rival tax initiatives to drop their efforts, arguing that a ballot featuring multiple tax hikes will lead voters to reject them all.
The argument hasn't moved Munger, a Democrat and Pasadena resident, who says her polling shows a tax hike earmarked for schools can win even with other tax measures on the ballot.
"We think the governor doesn't have as good of an idea this year as we do," Munger told reporters this week. "And that's part of democracy, to put that out in the marketplace of ideas and let the voters decide."
That tenacity doesn't surprise people who have worked with Munger on education issues in recent years.
"As someone who's been involved for a while on trying to get more funds for schools, I don't think I've ever met anyone quite as ferocious about it as Molly," said Ted Lempert, president of the nonprofit Children Now.
Lempert, who worked with Munger when she served on the Children Now board, said Munger brings both a lawyerly attention to detail and passion to her work.
"She is certainly someone who's going to fight for what she thinks is right, even if powerful folks don't agree," he said.
Munger has decades of experience on that front.
As a student at Pasadena's John Muir High School, she campaigned against the repeal of California's fair housing law and supported the student government's interracial slate.
She graduated from Harvard Law School and launched her career at a time when being a woman at a law firm was still considered "pioneering" work.
"That was meaningful to me," Munger said of often being the only or first woman at the table. "I liked the work, and I enjoyed getting those barriers down."
She spent 25 years working variously as a federal prosecutor and attorney in private practice, making partner in two firms. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Munger decided to return to the activism roots of her high school days.
"We had this wake-up call in Los Angeles about what had happened to communities of color it just seemed to me that I ought to go out on a quest to see if I could be useful," she said.
That took her to the Los Angeles office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She went on to found the Advancement Project, a legal action group focused on civil rights, with fellow NAACP colleague Constance Rice and her husband, attorney Steve English.
Personal experience also fueled Munger's passion for public schools.
After spending early years at what she calls the "ivy-covered" Westridge School, a private, all-girls academy, Munger, at 14, successfully petitioned her parents to let her go to Pasadena public schools. She said that experience "changed me forever."
"We had a rich mix of visual arts and music programs and drama and debate and science and sports and student government and clubs and classes and all kinds of wonderful materials and teachers," she told PTA members gathered in Sacramento this week.
"And there we were, this rainbow collection of kids all being supported by this wonderful education system that was helping us be everything that we could be."
But when she returned to the halls as a volunteer decades later, as she was considering sending her two sons there, she found a very different environment. After offering to fetch costumes and props for an English class performance of "Romeo and Juliet," she was shocked to learn that the drama department had been closed for 15 years.
Now that California ranks near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending, Munger said, things are even worse.
"When you say you're 47th in the country it sounds bad enough and it is bad enough but then when you see what it's actually doing to kids, it certainly really gets me up every day," she said.
Munger is joining forces with the PTA, which helped craft the initiative language and has pledged to rally volunteers to help with signature-gathering. They say her measure, which generates money on top of funding guaranteed by voter-approved Proposition 98, will do the most to send money to classrooms.
The effort has also put her at odds with some of the Capitol's most influential players.
"Her intentions are good and her goal is pure but I continue to believe that if there are multiple tax measures on the ballot it hurts all of us," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who has met with Munger. "I believe that tie base goes to the runner. All things being equal, deference ought to be given to the elected governor of California."
The California Teachers Association has endorsed Brown's plan, and the California Federation of Teachers has launched its own initiative to raise taxes on those earning at least $1 million.
CTA and other unions supporting Brown's plan can bring big dollars to the table.
So can Munger. Her father is a wealthy business partner to Warren Buffett. Her brother, Stanford physicist Charles T. Munger Jr., is a major GOP donor and financier of redistricting reform. The two are close, but given their ideological split, Munger joked that her brother "isn't the first deep pocket" she would ask for help.
She's already contributed nearly $1 million to her measure's campaign committee and says she will spend whatever it takes to qualify it.
With the measure expected to be cleared for signature gathering next week, Munger shows no signs of giving up.
"We're going to get this on the ballot," she said. "And we're going to win."