Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez, who has spent the last seven years as one of Texas' most prominent progressive prosecutors, unexpectedly announced Tuesday that he was joining the March Democratic primary to take on Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Gonzalez, who had to quit his current post because of the state's resign-to-run law, joins a nomination contest that includes Rep. Colin Allred and state Sen. Roland Gutierrez. A May runoff would take place if no one wins a majority of the vote in the first round.
Gonzalez, a criminal defense attorney who touted himself as a "Mexican biker lawyer covered in tattoos," first won office in a tight 2016 race even as Donald Trump was narrowly carrying his South Texas community, which includes Corpus Christie. Soon after, he began to attract national attention.
In 2018, he was the subject of a Politico profile in which writer Timothy Bella noted that he belonged to the Calaveras, a group that touts itself as a charity biker organization but that the state classifies as a gang. "At least once last year," wrote Bella, "he had to explain to a police officer who pulled him over for speeding that he would come up in his system as a known gang member—and, full disclosure, that he was also the county’s district attorney."
Gonzalez himself, though, argued he wasn't looking to be, in Bella's words, "a kind of 'screw you' issued by the 63 percent of Nueces County that’s Latino to the white Republican establishment." "I try to find a bit of balance," he said instead. "How do I carry this office with responsibility and honor and distinguish it, but not lose who I am being this tattooed, Hispanic, Calaveras, criminal-defense guy who grew up in a small town?" The new district attorney, however, was happy to align himself with the movement to elect more reformers to office. "I am glad that reform is cool now," said the Democrat, who sports a "Not Guilty" tattoo. "It didn’t use to be cool at all."
Gonzalez defied critics by pulling off a 51-49 reelection win in 2020 as Trump was taking Nueces County 51-48, which prompted conservatives to instead try to remove him from office without an election. Local Republicans filed a petition in January that, among other things, alleged he'd failed to properly oversee his office and tried to win grant money by dismissing cases. (The petition originally also blasted him for joining four other Texas district attorneys in refusing to prosecute abortion cases, but the argument was later dropped since there were no instances of such cases coming before the county.) Gonzalez responded to the New York Times, "We’re dismissing cases because it’s the right thing to do."
But thanks to County Attorney Jenny Dorsey's support for the petition, the dispute was slated for a December trial, though its status is currently up in the air. The head of the state branch of Citizens Defending Freedom, a national conservative group that opposes criminal justice reformers, argued to one state legislator that a trial could have big implications outside of Texas. "If this goes through and this is successful," he warned, "this could be the springboard to holding other corrupt district attorneys accountable by we the people."
But in his resignation letter to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Gonzales said the trial will now "never happen because I refuse to play this rigged Republican game, particularly considering the Republicans’ hypocrisy, as their presumptive presidential nominee is under indictment in four jurisdictions across this beautiful country and no less revered." Dorsey, however, says she's waiting for official word from the governor about what's next.
Gonzalez doesn't appear to have been seriously discussed as a Senate candidate until he unveiled a kickoff video Tuesday taking Cruz to task for his infamous vacation to Cancun during the 2021 Texas freeze. (Both Allred and Gutierrez also highlighted that trip in their own campaign launches.) In that video, Gonzalez describes his guilty plea to a DWI at age 19, an incident he's recounted numerous times during his political career, saying he and his mother "had no options." But that experience, he says, inspired him to become a lawyer in order to represent "[g]ood kids like me who just needed a second chance."
The new candidate, who's depicted riding his motorcycle and doing jiu-jitsu in his video, argues, "Texans deserve a leader as tough as they are willing to fight for justice, even on the really cold and dark days, because that's when it matters the most. That's why I'm running against Ted Cruz, because the little guy needs someone tough to stand up for them."
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