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.