Businessman Leads New Board Majority in The Woodlands
By Matthew Tresaugue
December 20, 2016
Gordy Bunch’s first campaign slogan was “Best of the Bunch.” It was a groan-worthy pun, to be sure, but the wordplay had deeper meaning: The Woodlands Township’s governing board needed fresh faces and new ideas.
The message resonated with voters, who elected Bunch in 2012 – and his allies in subsequent elections.
Now, four years after Bunch ran against the powers that be, the turnover, or takeover, is complete. The conservative businessman is leading a new slow-things-down majority on the seven-member board. As chairman, a position akin to mayor, he vows to continue defending the quality of life in this leafy enclave of new wealth and settled rhythms.
“It’s not good enough to say, ‘It’s out of our control,'” Bunch said, referring to the oft-repeated reply by township officials to residents’ concerns about new development. “We need to be responsive.”
All of his plans, he said, focus on maintaining the scenic charm and suburban character that draws people to The Woodlands and protecting the vision of the late George P. Mitchell, who created the pine-hemmed community in the 1970s.
His critics suggest the outspoken Bunch, 44, has a different goal in mind – furthering his own political career. They describe him as the rigid and uncompromising amplifier for narrow-minded activists and their relentless chorus of “not in my backyard.”
“It’s OK to disagree, but it’s not OK to be disagreeable,” said former board member Mike Bass, who lost his seat to a Bunch ally in November. In particular, Bass said, the township’s recent clashes with Montgomery County over roads and other issues have made the community look like “spoiled children who had to have their own way.”
Bunch said he intends to find ways to work with county leaders on improving public safety and promoting economic development. He recently talked to Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal about flooding issues.
“We need to create ways to move forward in a positive direction for all involved,” Doyal acknowledged.
But it would be surprising if Bunch changes his populist views given that voters have lined up solidly behind him.
“He stands up for what he thinks is right,” said John McMullan, a board member who is aligned with Bunch. “That’s an attractive quality in an elected official.”
Handily wins re-election
In November, Bunch easily dispatched two challengers despite a shadowy campaign that poured at least $244,000 into television advertisements, mobile billboards and out-of-town strategists to unseat him. What’s more, his running mates – political newcomers Brian Boniface, John Anthony Brown and Bruce Rieser – swept the other three seats on the ballot.
The new board then selected Bunch as chairman, replacing Ed Robb, a local pastor who retired from politics. It marked a generational change in leadership, with an early resident stepping aside for someone who arrived much later.
A California native, Bunch was fresh out of the Coast Guard when he and his wife, Michelle, moved to The Woodlands in 1995. He got a job selling insurance for the Texas Farm Bureau and then used his life savings of $10,000 to start his own agency in 2001.
The Woodlands Financial Group is now one of the nation’s largest insurance agencies, with more than 300 branches in 38 states. It’s based on the second floor of The Woodlands Mall, just above a quirkily stylish clothier and a Williams-Sonoma store. Bunch said he picked the location in 2004 because the mall offered the most affordable space with room to grow and “excellent exposure” for the brand.
When Bunch decided to enter his first political race in 2012, he filed the required paperwork on the way home from work, minutes before the deadline. He hadn’t talked about it with anyone but his wife. He had no base of support and no plan for winning a seat.
“I was a neighbor and an entrepreneur who wanted to run because I enjoy service,” he said.
During the campaign, he received the backing of the Texas Patriots PAC, a fledgling tea party group based in The Woodlands. The enduring relationship has benefited both, with the group working to turn out voters on his behalf and Bunch supporting them financially. His biggest contribution was $25,000 for a table at a fundraising dinner headlined by Donald Trump last year.
Close ties with tea party
Some view the bond between Bunch and the group with suspicion, saying they injected partisanship into local politics. In 2015, for example, the race for three at-large seats on the township’s board devolved into a caustic contest between competing slates. Two of the three Texas Patriots-backed candidates won seats.
Bunch said he doesn’t take directions from the group and doesn’t tell it what to do. He attends its meetings when asked to speak about local issues.
“People think we’re trying to rule the throne, but we just have issues important to us,” said Bill O’Sullivan, the Texas Patriots’ treasurer. Bunch and the group “have a similar goal,” said O’Sullivan. “We don’t want to see The Woodlands cut up with six-lane roadways.”
Together, they showed their political acumen last year by rallying voters in The Woodlands to defeat a $350 million bond measure for new and improved roadways in Montgomery County. In particular, they objected to the proposed extension of the Woodlands Parkway through undeveloped land west of the township, saying the project would exacerbate traffic problems.
The Texas Patriots later supported a slimmed-down road bond plan that didn’t include the controversial parkway project, and voters approved it.
The episode contributed to a growing divide between Montgomery County leaders, accustomed to calling the shots in the once-rural county, and their upstart counterparts from The Woodlands, which accounts for a big and growing segment of the county’s tax base. Some county leaders have accused the township of being selfish/ Bunch and other local officials have complained about a lack of responsiveness from the county – a factor in the township’s 2014 decision to pull out of a deal to contribute money toward a planned customs facility at Conroe’s airport.
Bunch has suggested that The Woodlands might need to become a full-fledged city to shape growth, rather than letting growth shape the unincorporated community, which has some 110,000 residents.
The Woodlands operates with a unique “township” form of government, a hybrid between a private corporation and elected municipal government. If the community becomes a real city, it would have ordinance-making powers, along with its own public safety and public works departments.
Turning The Woodlands into a city
As chairman, Bunch says he will start meaningful planning for cityhood. The community, he said, doesn’t have enough information to make a decision about incorporation.
“We don’t know the pros, cons or cost,” he said. “To me, that’s a failure of leadership.”
But Bass, the former board member, said he isn’t sure incorporation would give The Woodlands more clout.
“You don’t get more respect by changing your legal designation,” Bass said. “You get it by the way you act. The board is mostly being reactive to what the county proposes. It’s more about objecting than finding solutions.”
A nonprofit group launched by former board chairman Bruce Tough, the longtime board member who was unseated last year by a Bunch ally, used the specter of higher property taxes because of future incorporation as a wedge in the most recent election.
Campaign finance reports show The Woodlands Concerned Taxpayers, which didn’t disclose its donors, spent at least $244,000 on ads and voter outreach to sway the election. The amount was more than double what all nine candidates had spent, combined.
Tough didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. Before the election, he said he formed the group to protect the township’s “perfect form of limited government,” which produced a “high quality of life” with a low property tax rate.
Bunch’s supporters and critics wonder if he is using incorporation to position himself for higher elected office. He ran for an open Texas Senate seat in 2014, only to fall short of a Republican primary runoff.
He insisted he has no plans to run for another position while his business is growing and his three sons are in school. “My only ambition,” he said, “is to represent this community.”
Environment Reporter, Houston Chronicle