MARTINEZ -- On the walls of Mark Peterson's fourth-floor corner office are photos of him scaling some of the tallest, most foreboding peaks on earth. He has conquered Mount Whitney, Mount Rainier and three of the so-called Seven Summits: Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska and Elbrus in Russia.
Clearly, Contra Costa County's district attorney is no stranger to long, uphill climbs.
Four years ago, he was engaged in a grueling slog to the summit, professionally speaking, battling Dan O'Malley for district attorney and the right to head an office plagued by dysfunction and scandal. Peterson, the presumed underdog, won by 15 percentage points.
The quest for the hearts and minds of the staff he oversees, many of whom endorsed O'Malley, wasn't so easily resolved. Some suggest it continues to this day.
"I think people feel good about the direction we've taken the last four years," said Peterson, 56, who will win re-election unopposed this year. "The first year, yeah, it was tough. When I first came in, my closest advisers were my close friends. But very quickly, that group expanded, and there were several people who had supported Dan that are part of a group I consult with almost weekly."
Change didn't happen fast enough for some. During his first two years in office, Peterson was named a defendant in four lawsuits, three of which allege he engaged in political payback against employees who had backed O'Malley. Two prosecutors were awarded $50,000 settlements.
David Brown, among the four senior deputy DAs demoted by Peterson after he took office, is the plaintiff in a suit alleging hostility in the workplace. That suit is scheduled to go to trial in January. The fourth suit was dismissed.
"It was the night of the long knives," Brown, now in private practice in Fairfield, said of Peterson's first few months in office. "I personally have no problem with the concept that when a new person comes in, they want to promote people they know. My concern is when they're not qualified for the job, and the only reason they're there is because they're committed to you. That's wrong."
Brown acknowledges that some people Peterson demoted were reinstated and given raises. The man Peterson vanquished to win the office has kind words about the work he's done.
"I think he's doing a good job," said O'Malley, a former deputy DA and judge who now works in private practice. "I'm absolutely supportive of him. We both had the same vision, to get the Board of Supervisors to recognize how hardworking the prosecutors are and how much they care about the victims (of crime)."
Peterson, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, joined the Contra Costa DA's Office in 1984. Five years later, "as a side interest," he ran for Concord City Council. He won in 1995 on his third try.
He set his sights higher in 2002, campaigning for District Attorney but failing to make the runoff. He decided to try again in 2010 for a variety of reasons. One, incumbent Bob Kochly had decided not to run. Two, Peterson was rankled after being demoted by Kochly from his job as director of the sexual assault unit. And three, Peterson thought Kochly mishandled rape allegations against deputy district attorney Michael Gressett, brought in May 2008 by a junior prosecutor.
"I felt that whole case was being handled so poorly that there should be new leadership in the DA's Office," Peterson said.
The case became a polarizing issue during the 2010 race between Peterson and O'Malley. There is no DA drama this election cycle. The local prosecutors union in February endorsed Peterson's unopposed re-election bid.
"Mark has utilized the knowledge and resources around him," said deputy district attorney Mary Knox, head of the homicide unit. "Becoming involved in the Cease Fire program in Richmond has been huge. I have to compliment him on his vision."
The Cease Fire program is part of a strategy that has reduced the rate of violent crime in Richmond. As of his election, Peterson said, Richmond had averaged 35 homicides a year for 25 years. To date in 2014, there have been eight. To this end, he also instituted a gun-buyback program.
"Mark's been a good partner," Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus said. "He's been very engaged in helping us reduce the rate of violence. He's been a big part of the Cease Fire program, and the Wire, that targets individuals who need extra attention."
As he heads into his second term, Peterson pledges to continue the battle against school truancy, which has been a focus in his first term and led to the county's first prosecution of parents for not sending their children to school. He wants to continue his collaboration with other DA offices in the state, sharing strategies and experience.
Also on his wish list is increasing compensation and decreasing the case load of Contra Costa prosecutors, who had the highest felony conviction rate (73 percent) among the nine Bay Area counties in 2011-12, the most recent period for which figures are available. Deputy district attorneys average about $103,000 in gross pay annually; senior deputy DAs average about $177,000, according to this newspaper's public salaries database.
"It's something that still needs to be addressed," Peterson said. "We have a statewide reputation as being one of the best DA's offices as far as trial attorneys. That's just flat-out true. So we're just saying, treat us fairly."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.
Hometown: Walnut Creek
Claim to fame: Contra Costa County District Attorney; running unopposed for a second term
Salary: $203,082 (regular pay, 2013)
Quote: "The biggest thing I'm pleased with is how we've been able to help reduce the violence rate in Richmond. I went around the entire county explaining to people, I'm focusing on Richmond because all of us pay for that gun violence."