CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—A year into Mark Gonzalez’s first term as district attorney of Nueces County, Texas, hardly anything in his office is unpacked. Boxes line the back wall of his office; his desk is strewn with loose paperwork. Hung on the otherwise bare walls are family pictures, a baseball pennant and a colorful mural of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Gonzalez looks down, reaches toward the floor and smiles, slightly embarrassed to find that the plaque from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recognizing him as district attorney still isn’t hanging up.
“This one says I’m the DA,” he says, holding the plaque. “That’s kind of important.”
If you’d met him outside the office, without the plaque and the name on the door, it would anything but obvious that you were talking to the chief prosecutor of a 300,000-person county. It’s a weekday and Gonzalez is dressed in camo pants, an old Astros hat and a neon-green bandanna around his neck. An enormous glossy red belt buckle sports the logo of the motorcycle club he’s been a member of since 2008.
The look isn’t the unlikeliest thing about him. In the history of Nueces County, all of the 20-plus people to hold the position of district attorney have been older white men. The county hasn’t gone Democratic for president in more than 20 years, and if anything it’s getting more conservative: Donald Trump’s margin of victory here was nearly 2,000 votes more than Mitt Romney’s in 2012. Until his resignation last month, its congressman was the conservative Republican Blake Farenthold.
But in 2016, Nueces also elected Gonzalez, a 38-year-old Democrat and self-described “Mexican biker lawyer covered in tattoos.” Before being elected, Gonzalez had never prosecuted a single case: For his entire 10-year career, Gonzales had specialized in getting accused criminals off the hook—working most closely with low-income, mostly minority offenders, fighting low-level charges for marijuana and other substances. His pride in his work is expressed in a spectacular tattoo that he had inked across his chest a few years ago, reading, in colorful gothic type, “Not Guilty.”
Gonzalez’s résumé puts him in a small but striking new wave of U.S. prosecutors, politically liberal and in some cases even civil-rights advocates, who’ve been elected to roll back the excesses of the past 20 years’ worth of tough-on-crime laws. But what might make him the single unlikeliest DA in the United States isn’t his legal philosophy or his politics, but what’s stamped on the immense red belt buckle he’s wearing: the insignia of the Calaveras, the motorcycle club Gonzalez belongs to, which describes itself as a charity group but which the state of Texas officially considers a gang. With that comes a unique situation faced by no other elected official nationwide: Gonzalez, the county’s district attorney and regarded as a potential rising star in Texas politics, is considered by local police to be a registered gang member.
He connected with the Calaveras 10 years ago after they asked him to be their defense attorney for occasional DUI- or marijuana-related cases, soon joining them as a full-on member. It’s a partnership that has brought him a lot of joy and a lot of business, but it also ensures he can never quite relax about how the public sees him. At least once last year 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.
“I’m very cognizant of every decision I make,” he said, “because I know people are watching.”
It’s not hard to see Gonzalez’s burly, brash figure—tattoos, buckle, and all—as a kind of “screw you” issued by the 63 percent of Nueces County that’s Latino to the white Republican establishment, a living embodiment of the confrontational climate of national politics in the Trump era. That is not how Gonzalez sees it. He talks to pretty much everyone he encounters like they’ve been friends forever. He quietly listens to his constituents who approach him on the street and politely takes the calls of those who’ve managed to track down his cellphone number. “I try to find a bit of balance,” Gonzalez says. “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?”
He hasn’t lost who he is; that much is clear to anyone who spends five minutes with him. But as for what’s he going to do with the office—that’s the immediate question at the heart of Gonzalez’s young administration. Gonzalez has staked out a couple of issues on which he wants to play reformer: a cite-and-release program for cases involving minuscule amounts of marijuana and a domestic violence initiative that includes assisting cosmetologists to spot signs of abuse in their clients. He was one of 31 prosecutors nationwide to sign on to a letter sent in May 2017 to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, opposing the AG’s new tough-on-crime order for federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” On other big issues, including the death penalty, Gonzalez’s positions are, by his own admission, still evolving.
There’s a local political split in reaction to the tattooed DA. On one hand, you can go on Gonzalez’s Facebook page and see a raft of overwhelmingly positive comments on just about every post, whether it’s work-related or something that gives a window into his everyday life with his family. But he’s also become a target for the (mostly white) legal community and local law enforcement in Corpus Christi, who’ve been making an issue, both loudly and quietly, of his ties to the biker gang. They have raised questions about his competence, since he’s only tried three cases so far and somehow managed to get his law license suspended last year by not paying his dues to the state bar. His maturity was also questioned when he decided to wear a Dallas Cowboys jersey and jeans to his public swearing-in ceremony.
His supporters are already looking beyond the DA’s office, seeing perhaps the next great Hispanic hope in Texas—whether he stays in the state or heads north to the halls of Washington as an eventual member of Congress from Nueces County. “Mark is emblematic of so many people’s dreams,” says Matt Manning, the first assistant for Gonzalez’s office, who has worked with him since 2014. “You often see young guys who are tatted up and counted out by society or are assumed the worst about. And then you see that this dude is the DA?”
Corpus Christi is a modern city, one of the largest ports in the nation, with a local economy driven by energy and tourism. But Gonzalez’s style was forged in his hometown of Agua Dulce, 34 miles west of Corpus Christi, a blue-collar agricultural town of something over 800 people. His father had gone straight from high school to the oil refinery, working nights in order to put food on the table, while his mother was a teacher. When his parents divorced going into his freshman year of high school, home life changed. Gonzalez, along with his younger brother, Eric, found themselves in what he describes as a “Lord of the Flies” situation—a free-for-all that had the boys partying during the week while their father worked nights, and skipping school when they felt like it.
When he was 15, long before he could legally get a tattoo on his own, he and some buddies put a wire clothes hanger in a fire to brand themselves. Like most kids his age, he might not have fully understood just how permanent a decision it was, but he recognized it would be a hell of a story to tell someday. On his stomach today, you’ll see an “M.” Some of his buddies ended up with a messy scar. “Mine came out great,” he tells me, laughing.
He still keeps a law office in the town, and, driving through Agua Dulce behind the wheel of his lifted, dirt-layered Ford Super Duty pickup, Gonzalez points out the law office building with his name on it that he still keeps in town. He points out the place with the best burger and Dos Carnales, a convenience store run by family members and friends that doubles as a bar. We take a right and pass a couple of the modest homes where he lived. “We had a party there and had 43 minor-in-possession [violations],” he recalls, driving by the three-bedroom on Franklin Avenue. “There were 25 [students] in our class.”
Not having their mom around on a full-time basis also meant that, despite their father having a stable job, the bills wouldn’t get paid on time, leaving the Gonzalez brothers without water, electricity or gas in any given month. “Man, the way we lived, people would call Child Protective Services nowadays,” Gonzalez says. “You know what it’s like to take a cold shower when it’s freezing outside and you don’t have hot water?” He adds: “I never really thought I had it bad—that’s the crazy part.”
Gonzalez In small-town Texas, you sometimes have to entertain yourself, even if that means going to hang out with friends at a Taco Bell parking lot 10 miles away. That is where Gonzalez met Janna, his future wife. “My first impression was he was very nice, but that he was different,” she remembers of the guy she’d see maybe once a month and whom she’d finally end up dating almost 17 years later. “Him and his cousin had to have a matching outfit for every occasion, down to the accessories.” Gonzalez, who married Janna last October, says he loved her at first sight, even if she didn’t know. “She’s Allie and I’m Noah—I was the guy from the wrong side of the tracks,” he says, referring to the main characters from the Nicholas Sparks novel “The Notebook.” “Even when we weren’t together, I wanted to work so hard to show her I was good enough.”
The results didn’t come overnight. Gonzalez just wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps to a job at the refinery, but by the time he graduated from high school, the plant had already shut down, and his mother had other plans. “I made up his mind for him,” his mother, Linda, tells me. She enrolled him at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, located in the city where she was living.
Sitting next to me on a couch in his pool room back home, Gonzalez tells me he still remembers being scared shitless about the night that changed the rest of his life. He was 19 and had been drinking at a buddy’s party in nearby Kingsville when he got in his car to see a girl. The local police pulled him over for speeding, and he spent the night in jail on a misdemeanor DUI charge. A couple days later, he headed to court without any legal representation, not knowing any lawyers in his area. After he pled guilty, he stuck around long enough to see a defense attorney help his client get out of a similar charge. “That moment triggered something in me,” he said.“But I didn’t know what to do to become [a lawyer]. I didn’t know any lawyers, judges or anyone with a real college education. I thought, ‘Dude, how the heck do I do this?’”
Gonzalez struggled his first three years of college, and law school at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio wasn’t any easier. He found himself on academic probation and says he graduated in 2005 as 285th out of 286 students in his class. (I called the law school to check this out; a spokesperson responded that the school was “not able to discuss any student’s performance.”) Gonzalez failed the bar twice, he says, before passing on the third try—by one point.
As a junior attorney with no experience, Gonzalez would go to the courthouse practically every day and watch what the good lawyers did right, and how the bad ones failed. His Corpus Christi clients were Hispanic, lower middle class and without a lot of money to spend on a lawyer. As a relative unknown, he’d take $200 a case. He was thrilled. By then, he had tattoos covering his arms, which he carefully kept covered when he was in court. Offsite, he’d roll up his sleeves. “I let my clients see my tattoos, to feel like I was just like them,” he said. “The reality was, I am a lot like them, except I have a law degree.”
He’d known the Calaveras for a few years, and in 2008 the club’s founder, Mario, had met with Gonzalez at his office and asked whether he would be the club’s lawyer, mostly for DWI- or marijuana-related charges. Gonzalez didn’t hesitate to accept. “When one of them needed something, I was there,” Gonzalez recalls. Then, he took it one step further. Gonzalez says Mario insisted that, if he was giving advice to the gang’s members, the attorney needed their respect: He needed to be a member. From then on, Gonzalez became the go-to guy for a population that local police didn’t necessarily like, but who’d often gotten the short end of the stick on minor charges involving possession.
By the mid-2010s, Gonzalez had started to win cases—a lot of them. Soon, he’d be known as the “Mexican Moses,” the man who could persuade the system to let his people go.As people in and around the court will tell you, if you tried taking some low-level offender to court for a minor substance charge and the person was being represented by Gonzalez, there was a strong chance you were going to lose. He grew into one of the brashest and most successful defense attorneys in Corpus Christi, hash-tagging his signature “Not Guilty” logo on Facebook after big wins.
Manning, the assistant DA, says that as a prosecutor he went up against Gonzalez in court six times—and in five of those six meetings,Gonzalez got his client off with a “not guilty” or a hung jury. Manning eventually left the DA’s office to join Gonzalez’s private practice, and returned as the new DA’s right-hand man after the election. He says Gonzalez has a unique way of being the courtroom’s everyman, the guy you’d want to join you over barbecue and a beer. “That’s why he whoops your butt every time,” Manning says. “People are like, ‘I want to watch the Cowboys game with this guy.’ Whatever he says is gold—and that’s what makes him crazy dangerous.”
Toward the end of 2015, Gonzalez, then sitting at his desk, turned to Manning with an idea: He wanted to run for district attorney. Naturally, Manning thought he was nuts. “We have a robust caseload, we’re whooping the state’s butt every week, making money, and living this rock star life—why would you do that?” Manning remembers asking him. “One hundred percent truth: He told me, ‘I just want to make a difference, bro. This office can’t keep operating this way.’”
Gonzalez made the pitch even clearer to Manning: “If I become DA—if we become DA—with a stroke of a pen, we can help thousands of people, people like us, who need the help,” Gonzalez recalls. “When I say people like us, I mean people of color or people of not color who don’t have the financial means or education. That’s real progress. That’s real advocacy. That’s the way to help somebody.”
The primary campaign against Mark Skurka, the incumbent DA, would be tough. Though the race didn’t get a lot of attention, it was contentious. Gonzalez slammed the DA’s office for allegedly withholding evidence in some of the cases, while Skurka made an issue of his opponent’s career as a defense attorney, tattoos and affiliation with the Calaveras. When Gonzalez won, it was considered a major upset.
On Election Day, as Donald Trump was on his way to winning the presidency, Gonzalez went to bed crushed, thinking he had lost his bid to be district attorney. His Republican opponent, James Gardner, had taken the opposite approach from Skurka, praising Gonzalez’s work ethic and running a straight campaign void of public disparagement. It was looking to be a big election for the Republican Party, including in Nueces County, and Gonzalez was tired and pessimistic. He switched off his phone that night and went to sleep.
In the hours after the final projections were made, Gonzalez’s mother and brother knocked on his door, found it locked, and made their way into his house through the garage. They had some news. “We didn’t know what happened,” Janna Gonzalez says, thinking the scene was a dream. “[His brother] said, ‘You won! You won!’ We were both in shock.” Still three-quarters asleep, Gonzalez was trying to make sense of what they were saying. “I read the website and realized what they were saying,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘Holy shit, it happened.’”
That night, when thousands of people in red hats were celebrating Donald Trump’s shocking win, a counterwave was also beginning, just as shocking in its own way. Philadelphia elected the civil-rights advocate Larry Krasner to be its DA. In Denver, Beth McCann won after promising to hold police more accountable. In Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, Kim Foxx won in a landslide on a sweeping reform platform; so did Kim Ogg, in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. At the crest of the wave was Mark Gonzalez, the unlikely new DA in Corpus Christi. “I am glad that reform is cool now,” he tells me. “It didn’t use to be cool at all.”
After he was sworn in, Gonzalez didn’t waste time moving on some of his campaign promises.Almost immediately, he introduced a pretrial diversion program aimed at people charged with marijuana possession. By issuing $250 fines and mandatory drug classes for those in possession of two ounces of pot or less, Gonzalez and his team hope to keep low-level marijuana offenders out of jail while generating new revenue for the county. The fines have brought in more than $500,000 in the first year, Manning says.
The open letter to Jeff Sessions was the first time Gonzalez joined in the national conversation on federal law enforcement. Gonzalez said he’d grown tired of seeing low-level offenders face strict sentencing on marijuana charges that, he says, are so small in the broader political landscape. “With Mr. Sessions, I honestly think he has no real grasp on the reality for how most people across the U.S. really feel or think about marijuana,” Gonzalez says.
Another top campaign priority was domestic violence, an increasing concern in Corpus Christi and Nueces County. Gonzalez’s office implemented a reform to allow people accused of domestic violence to have their cases dismissed if they signed a confession and agree to attend a 24-week class. Gonzalez’s hope was to reduce the rate of repeat offenses. The program caught flak in March for a case involving Danry Vasquez, a minor-league baseball player who completed his probationary sentence and took a course once he returned to his native Venezuela—after which a video surfaced showing him hitting his girlfriend, leading to a local backlash from people who thought he should have been jailed instead. Another case saw a police officer from the nearby town of Mathis get rehired after going through the intervention program. And when a local news station reported that most of the county’s domestic violence cases since Gonzalez was elected were dismissed without the defendant going through the program, he added teeth by launching a new domestic violence bureau that will have two dedicated prosecutors for those cases. Even with the changes, he remains concerned about the culture of domestic violence in Nueces County. “If you have people out there who are still revictimizing and not learning their lesson, then it doesn’t matter if you get a conviction,” he says.
For all the expectations around Gonzalez, he’s still adjusting to life as a prosecutor. He’s nowhere close to keeping his campaign promise of personally trying one case a month—so far, he has tried five in about 17 months—and there isn’t a clear path for him to keep his promise.
He has also struggled to formulate a clear position on capital punishment, which has become a signature issue for many progressive DAs, in part because the burden falls so heavily on poor and minority defendants. But the death penalty also has broad popular support in Texas, and Gonzalez considers himself torn on the issue, even going to church and asking a priest about it. (He declined to say what the priest told him.) Last year, he announced he was seeking the death penalty for a man accused of beating his pregnant girlfriend to death; in January, he said he’d pursue the death penalty for two of the three men allegedly involved in the brutal murder of a woman found in an abandoned trailer. “When you have to ask the community whether they should kill someone, that’s some heavy shit,” he says. He doesn’t want to be in a position to second-guess himself for years, he says, which is why he believes bringing these cases to juries is important. “You have people say, ‘Mark, how can you be progressive and still believe in the death penalty?’” he says. “It’s not so much that I believe in it, but I want to give these decisions to the community; I’m bringing it to them.”
Gonzalez says the job has forced him to reconsider how to balance the will of the community with his own evolving views. “There are images and pictures and smells I can never get out of my head,” he tells me. He goes on about the murder cases and how they’ve affected him, as a prosecutor and person: “It haunts you, man.”
Gonzalez has lunch every day with a group of friends he’s been eating with for years. On this day, they are at Taqueria El Mexicano. Gonzalez sticks to his high-fat, low-carb diet of barbacoa, eggs over easy and avocado. They laugh and BS with each other. He’s outgoing, but shifts easily into listening mode. At one point during my time with Gonzalez, he took a call from a constituent who somehow got his cellphone number and asked him about options to get a driving-related incident off her record. He wasn’t the prosecutor at the time; he’s not a defense attorney anymore. With his new job, there’s not much he can do, but he stays on the phone.
He empathizes with the woman on the line: “I’ve got a DUI, and it’s followed me around my whole life,” he tells her. Though his current job has him going after more serious cases, he says he feels for people like her, stuck with a situation he’s been in his whole life. “You have to take those calls,” he tells me inside his truck. “Most of the time they just want to vent, which I get.”
At his office, Jessica Perez, Gonzalez’s administrator, takes me to the nondescript break room. There, she shows me the dent the team has made in the backlog of cases. The waist-high stack of papers has been cut in half since Gonzalez took office a year ago, Perez says. Both within and outside his office, colleagues in the legal community praise his work ethic, understanding how seriously he takes the cases and how he wants to hold tight to his campaign promises. “You don’t see prosecutors like him,” she tells me. “It’s not about him. It’s about the work.”
But for some, it is about him. The comments to online news stories about the DA are littered with ad hominem attacks. “This is an attorney? LMAO.” “Dress for your job … Also be prepared to speak correctly.” “Why does he look so gangster?” “Your law professor would be ashamed.” For someone who displays outward confidence, Gonzalez pays a surprising amount of attention to the barbs. “I see it every day that people on social media or in the comments of news articles think I’m a gangster, I’m a crook, that I’m letting all the gang members go, letting the people in my motorcycle club run around,” he says. “I've seen cops on their own social media who say this guy is a gangster, this guy is a fox in the henhouse.”
Since 1995, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Gang Intelligence Index, as part of the state’s Code of Criminal Procedure, has kept track of “persons associated with street gangs as reported by criminal justice agencies within Texas.” The index, which is accessible only to law enforcement, is filled with local or regional database intelligence on the organizations classified as registered criminal street or prison gangs, such as the Texas Syndicate and Texas Mafia. One of these groups in the database is the Calaveras, a club of mostly older Hispanic and white men. Though long known for their toy drives and community-related events throughout Texas, they’re also considered a gang by the Department of Public Safety, and at least a couple members told me they’ve been unjustly labeled and questioned because of their affiliation.
Richard Caballero, 61, says he feels protective of the perception surrounding having the local DA in his club. “If I’m wearing the same cut that Mark wears, then I don’t want to do anything that would cause Mark any discomfort or undue bullshit,” says Caballero, a Marine Corps veteran known as “Colt.” “He’s a brother.” Jeff Churchill, bald with a wooly, gray goatee and a stitched-up scar over his right eye, talks about a back-and-forth he had with local police, which ended with him telling law enforcement that they shouldn’t assume he’s guilty of something the Calaveras haven’t done.
“We don’t compromise Mark Gonzalez at all—not one bit,” says Churchill, known as “Dos Cuchillos,” meaning “Two Knives.” “Law enforcement has this idea that we’re raping, robbing, plundering, burning down houses, running drugs, running guns. We don’t do anything illegal in this club, but we get lobbed in there with other clubs known as registered gangs.” He adds, with emphasis: “Let me reiterate: The motorcycle club I’m a part of, the Calaveras, engages in zero illegal activities.”
I reached out to the CCPD and asked them about Gonzalez’s affiliation with the club, the department’s outlook on his connection to the Calaveras and the group being designated as a gang; a spokesman for the department declined to make a public statement. The Texas Department of Public Safety did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Though the label admittedly bugs his family and friends, they don’t need a database to tell them who Gonzalez is to them. “I know in my heart that my son isn’t a gang member,” his mother says.
There’s an argument to be made that Gonzalez joining the Calaveras solidified his position as an outsider, and even helped him in a year in which outsiders seemed to have all the energy in politics. On the national scene, “Bikers for Trump” were seen prominently at various rallies for the unorthodox GOP candidate. He understood a large number of the Calaveras were conservative, with a healthy number likely voting for Trump. But Gonzalez also recognized that he had more in common with them than just about any politician who’d ever run.
“A lot of them are conservative, but a lot of them have tattoos and identify with me,” Gonzalez says. And, given the right candidate, bikers also vote.“There’s also a lot of them—and I think that’s what put me over the edge to win that election.”
On the five acres he owns in a little town west of Corpus Christi, Gonzalez is running late. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and his office is packaging supplies and food for the area’s homeless. On the TV above the fireplace, “Live with Kelly and Ryan” is playing as Gonzalez plays with his 6-month-old daughter, drinks coffee out of a yellow mug marked with the Gadsden flag, and eats eggs and deer sausage.
Standing outside his home, Gonzalez radiates a comfort with where he is. But having come this far, he’s never quite free of the question of where he might go. Shortly after the announcement that Farenthold would not run for reelection, Gonzalez and his family say he was approached about possibly running for Congress. He declined, saying he wanted to serve out at least two terms as DA. “But if someone eventually wants me as attorney general, shoot, I’d do that,” Gonzalez tells me. “Imagine that, right?”
Right now, he’s late to the MLK Day Celebration. He picks up his 6-month-old and loads her into the truck. “C’mon, stinky, let’s go,” he tells her.
Walking through town with the hundreds that have come out, Gonzalez and his wife take photos and Snapchats, pushing their baby’s stroller and waving to friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers. Here, Gonzalez, the district attorney that never was supposed to be, is comfortable in his own skin. “There’s always Mark, the tattooed, Hispanic, Calaveras district attorney,” Gonzalez says. “That’s it. There’s no changing it for one way or another.”