Unz, the multimillionaire former gubernatorial candidate, credits as the inspiration for his comeback an unlikely figure: former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
Then a Democratic state senator, Solis was the public face of a 1996 ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $5.75 an hour. Despite closely following a federal increase, the California measure passed with 61 percent of the vote.
"The numbers were so strong there really wasn't any opposition," Unz recalled in an interview.
Now, he's working to qualify a ballot measure of his own to lift the minimum wage to $10 per hour in March 2015 and $12 per hour a year later. The minimum wage is set to increase from $8 an hour to $9 an hour on July 1, and to $10 by 2016, under a bill signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Unz characterized his more rapid timeline as a win for taxpayers.
"What we are seeing is the classic case of businesses privatizing the benefits of their low-wage workforces and socializing the costs," he said.
His push comes amid renewed focus by both major political parties on income inequality ahead of the midterm elections for Congress. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama through an executive order said he would raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour -- "because if you cook for our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty," he said in his State of the Union Address.
Obama said he would continue to urge Congress to extend the hike to all workers, arguing that the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan made the first of several annual addresses as president.