As a young police officer in Ogden, Neal Gunnarson used to find himself sitting in a courtroom and watching silently as the legal system determined the fate of another one of his cases.
"It was then that I decided the best job I could have was to be a prosecutor," Gunnarson said. "I felt that that's how I wanted to serve the citizens of this state."With a law degree from the University of Utah, he embarked on his legal career in 1972 and went on to serve a total of 16 years prosecuting crimes in Davis and Salt Lake counties along with an eight-year stint in private practice. In 1994, he took the big leap into politics, challenging his former boss, David E. Yocom, for the newly created office of district attorney.
"I had 80 percent of the attorneys in the office approach me and ask me to run against Mr. Yocom. They were dissatisfied with his administration and felt I could do a better job," Gunnarson said. "But I think what motivated me most was a concern about the increase in crime, especially gang crime."
Campaigning on the slogan "Enough is Enough," Gunnarson rode that year's huge Republican wave to victory over his better-known Democratic opponent, who ironically had played a pivotal role in creating the district attorney's office. Up until then, the county attorney handled both the civil and criminal functions.
Now, with the offices being recombined, Gunnarson must overcome a tough primary election challenge from fellow Republican Mark Griffin to earn a right to a November rematch against Yocom. Griffin, director of the Utah Division of Securities, forced a runoff at the party convention in large part on his contention that Gunnarson should have prosecuted Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini in the so-called "Giftgate" case.
Gunnarson says the convention vote was not an accurate reflection of his strength among the GOP delegates or of his handling of Giftgate but rather a case of overconfidence among his supporters.
"I was substantially ahead of everybody in the initial ballot, but then more than 400 people left the convention between the first and second ballots," Gunnarson said.
He also contends that his opponent's criticism of his handling of Giftgate underscores the real difference in their candidacies: prosecutorial experience.
"When I first ran for this office, I promised I would be in court. I have personally led some of the most serious cases this office has handled in the past four years," Gunnarson said.
And while specifically citing his successful prosecution of murderers Michael DeCorso and Roberto Arguelles, Gunnarson said he takes even more pride in his prosecution of a little-known gang member who assaulted an 80-year-old woman.
"It received no media attention, but that conviction meant a lot to me," Gunnarson said.
According to Gunnarson, the county's top legal officer must be as comfortable in the courtroom trenches as he is in the administrative offices and County Commission chambers.
"The only way to know what the troops are doing and what they're up against is to see for yourself. That means going to court," Gunnarson said. The reunification of the criminal and civil offices will impose additional administrative duties, but "I will continue to be an active prosecutor," he added.
Gunnarson, 56, has served as a consultant to the Peace Officers Standards and Training program, chairman of the Statewide Association of Public Attorneys, adjunct professor at several Utah colleges, and on a number of public policy committees. He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and has been active in the Footprinters Association and Boys State.
He and his wife, Susy, are the parents of six children.