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The running woman: McPeak uses her heritage in Schwarzenegger's cabinet

The election will be over in about a week; the charges and counter-charges will end (for a while); and Bush or Kerry will be flying high, as will the winners of other public offices.


The election will be over in about a week; the charges and counter-charges will end (for a while); and Bush or Kerry will be flying high, as will the winners of other public offices.

Politics, bless its promises-laced little heart, can be infuriating or fun, depending on your point of view.

California was a prime example of that when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger beat a gazillion other candidates for governor last year.

Then he named a Democrat to one of the most influential positions in the state's government; a woman whose roots go back to Fort Ransom, N.D., and Fargo.

She's Sunne Wright McPeak, California's secretary of business, transportation and housing.


Little sleep

Sunne, 55, runs an agency with 47,000 employees and a $6 billion budget.

Schwarzenegger and she don't see eye to eye politically, but they're on the same page in their desire to see California's state government overhauled, according to newspaper reports.

Those reports tell of this hard-working woman who often gets just four hours of sleep, e-mails people at 2 a.m. and, as directed by the governor, is seeking to improve the efficiency of her huge department to get more done with less money.

Whether she can swing it, you can be sure her North Dakota ancestors would be proud of her.

Her family

Let's look at Sunne's family tree, including:

Her paternal great-grandparents - John and Bertha Johnson. They farmed in Minnesota, then moved to Fargo, where John worked in maintenance at Moody's store in the 1930s and Bertha was an alterations woman at The Store Without a Name (the store whose name, incidentally, landed it in Ripley's Believe It or Not syndicated newspaper feature).


Sunne's maternal great-grandparents - Andrew and Johanna Sunne. They came to North Dakota from Norway and settled on land north of Fort Ransom in 1884.

Sunne's grandparents - Walter and Emma Sunne Johnson.

Walter, son of John and Bertha Johnson, and Emma, the youngest of Andrew and Johanna's 12 children, met in Fargo, where Walter worked for Bergquist Grocery and Emma was attending a business college.

Sunne's mother - Jean, daughter of Walter and Emma.

Jean was born in Fargo but moved to California with her parents in 1938. She married Alfred Wright there, and they had two children. One was Donald. The other was Sunne.

Highs and lows

Sunne was born in Turlock, Calif., and grew up on a farm in Livingston. For her sixth birthday, her parents gave her a gift not heartily recommended by either parenting or safety experts: a sawed-off shotgun. But she apparently handled it well and hunted game until she was 11.

She says as a youngster she was driven by Sunday school principles instilled in her by her parents.


"I decided at an early age I wanted to make the world well," she told the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee.

She attended the University of California at Santa Barbara. On the first day of her freshman year, she met John McPeak. He's now a high school teacher, her husband and the father of their two sons, ages 30 and 29.

Sunne earned a bachelor's degree in international health and a master's degree in public health and became the director of a small health center in Pittsburg, Calif.

Then she got into politics. She campaigned for a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. He didn't get it, losing to eventual gubernatorial winner Jerry Brown. But she won a seat on a county board of supervisors in 1978.

Soon she went head-to-head with Brown over a controversial canal he wanted built and she didn't. Her side won. She then took on another fellow Democrat, a veteran state senator seeking re-election. But she lost, thus curtailing what appeared to be a budding career in state politics.

She dropped out of politics and worked for such causes as creating regional oversight of the San Francisco airport.

Then Schwarzenegger, a Republican, brought this Democrat to the forefront by naming her to his cabinet.

'The best people'

Sunne's father died in 1992; her brother died last May after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. Sunne's mother lives in Turlock.

The land her family farmed at Fort Ransom now is part of the Fort Ransom State Park and is used in living history demonstrations during the annual Sodbuster Days.

All of this information comes from the Sacramento newspaper articles and the memory of Sunne's first cousin, Helen Huseby, Enderlin, N.D.

Sunne, meanwhile, has been named one of the 100 most influential women in business by the San Francisco Business Times.

And she and the governor are proving people on opposite sides of the political fence can work together.

A high official with the Bay Area Council when Sunne was a council member has this to say about Schwarzenegger: "The one thing the governor has done brilliantly is appoint both Democrats and Republicans; he's picking the best people."

One of them is the woman with North Dakota blood in her veins, Sunne McPeak.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail rlind@forumcomm.com

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