Embattled Nueces County prosecutor joins Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz

Mark Gonzalez speaks on a panel on criminal justice at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 23, 2017. (Kelly West For The Texas Tribune, Kelly West For The Texas Tribune)

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The embattled district attorney for Nueces County, Mark Gonzalez, announced Tuesday that he will enter the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

By announcing his campaign, Gonzalez resigned his current position — a significant development given that local conservative activists have been working to oust him for months.

“I was such a threat they tried to remove me from office,” Gonzalez said in an announcement video as it showed the tattooed Gonzalez hopping on a motorcycle. “Now, it became clear to me — and to all of us — that there isn’t one of us, a real American, in Washington, representing real Americans.”

Several Democrats are already running to take on Cruz, most prominently U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas and state Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio. Cruz is running for a third term after his close reelection race against Democrat Beto O’Rourke in 2018.

In the announcement video, Gonzalez echoed other Democrats in knocking Cruz over his 2021 trip to Cancun during the deadly winter freeze in Texas. But Gonzalez also opened up about his own criminal background, saying he was arrested for drunk driving when he was 19 years old, pleaded guilty and “worked hard for a second chance.”

Gonzalez’s time as the top prosecutor in Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi, has been a nationally watched flashpoint for the progressive criminal justice movement. A local conservative activist, Colby Wiltse, filed a petition in January to remove Gonzalez from office, accusing him of "incompetency, official misconduct, and failure to give bond." A trial is scheduled to start in December, though Gonzalez said Monday his resignation makes the issue moot.

In a resignation letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Gonzalez said he refuses to be a “sacrificial lamb to send a foreboding message to other duly elected DAs in Texas who exercise their discretion.”

Gonzalez was among five district attorneys in Texas who vowed last year not to pursue abortion-related criminal charges if Roe v. Wade was overturned. He previously promised not to prosecute families for receiving gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

The Legislature struck back at such DAs earlier this year, passing a law to ban local prosecutors from adopting policies in which they decline to prosecute certain types of crime.

Wiltse and his group, Citizens Defending Freedom, celebrated Gonzalez's resignation in a news release Wednesday, saying he stepped down "rather than face scrutiny and potential removal for the charge of 'incompetence' at trial."

"This is a great day for justice in Nueces County," Wiltse said.

Gonzalez was first elected district attorney in 2016. He narrowly won reelection in 2020, the same year former President Donald Trump won the county by 6 percentage points.

Abbott, a Republican, will get to appoint Gonzalez's replacement as district attorney.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.

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