Joe Bruno shocked the state with his announced retirement,
but the story of this controversial brawler could be
far from over
haven’t spoken to you since the world changed,” a source is
panting on the phone. It’s been a week since he went through
the list of clues that he figured added up to a surprise retirement
of New York state Sen. Joseph Bruno. And now it’s history,
and Albany is in chaos. “I didn’t expect it so soon. He musta
seen a train coming.”
Bruno announced his retirement with little circumstance to
his majority conference on June 23, in the last days of session,
setting off a torrent of instant messages, cell calls, and
rapid-fire e-mails throughout the state. TV news reporters
posted themselves at the Capitol to catch the weary legislators’
is a bombshell. I didn’t expect it,” Assemblyman Ron Canestrari
(D-Cohoes) told News Channel 13’s Beth Wurtmann. “It’s quite
an amazing end of our session.”
next morning, it had settled in, the powerful senator from
Brunswick, who for 14 years had completed the notorious triumvirate
that ran New York state government, was through. Long Island
Sen. Dean Skelos, who had served Bruno as deputy leader for
14 years, was the obvious successor, and was quickly elected
by his conference.
Ambitious local politicians realized the opportunity, and
limitations. They would have only a little more than two weeks
to rally their troops to petition to get their names on the
ballot. The shaky start to the announcements began. First,
former Saratoga Springs Mayor Valerie Keehn came out with
the hesitant declaration that she would petition for the Democratic
line. It was an expected move, her throwing her hat into the
ring with Democrat Brian Premo, an Albany-based lawyer, who
had been gearing up for months to unseat the incumbent senator.
welcome the primary,” says Premo. “In fact, I talked to Keehn
directly and I told her that I welcome it, because it will
help get the issues out to people, and help us get the best
candidate.” Of course, Premo does consider himself to be the
best candidate. His thwarted attempt to run in 2006 was the
first real challenge Bruno had faced in a decade, and gives
legitimacy to his boast that he is the only one with the foresight
to begin planning for the end of the Bruno era.
The horse race was on. Rumors were circulating that Mike Russo,
the director of the Capital Region office for U.S. Congresswoman
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Greenport), was interested in the seat,
as well as Saratoga Supervisor Joanne Yepsen. Premo called
a hurried press conference at his Corporate Woods office Tuesday
afternoon. He had been up all night to prepare a statement
and to entertain questions from the press.
Premo told the media (now very keen on what he had to say)
that he is running because “It’s time for a change of policy
in Albany. We are the most dysfunctional Legislature in the
nation. Property taxes and education costs are outrageous.
We’ve lost one million young people in the last 10 to 12 years
and were recently rated the worst state in which to do business.”
When a reporter asked him about Russo, Premo said that he
had no idea who the man is, but welcomed the competition.
Eventually both Russo, a former union leader, and Yepsen would
issue press releases announcing their plans to petition for
the 1,000 signatures needed, while Keehn quietly backed out.
Without party assistance, the task of gathering 1,000 signatures
from Democrats who have not already signed a petition is a
daunting one, says Tom Wade, Rensselaer County Democratic
Party chairman. Both Saratoga and Rensselaer counties have
already endorsed Premo, and could offer little assistance
to the latecomers. In April, Saratoga County Democratic Party
chair Larry Bulman had told the Times Union that Keehn
and Yepsen would not be challenging the senator.
In the meantime, Assemblyman Roy McDonald (R-Saratoga) was
pushed to the fore of other potential contenders by receiving
Bruno’s endorsement. Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino,
under speculation that she would be a candidate, chose to
not run, leaving McDonald in what appeared to be an unchallenged
position for the Republican line, until Ray Seney, a former
Nassau supervisor, announced that he would attempt to primary
This week, Bruno confessed to Fred Dicker on the air that
he would most likely not serve out the rest of his term in
the Senate. He didn’t want his presence to create “emotional
confusion” for his majority conference as to who was really
in charge, Skelos or himself. An odd reason, many insiders
say, for not serving out the last five months of a 32-year
Dicker followed up with the logical question, the one that
has loomed over Bruno’s abrupt announcement: Was the FBI investigation
the reason for Bruno’s retirement?
is nothing different with what’s been going on,” Bruno said.
“Nothing. I have done nothing wrong. I’ve been accused of
doing nothing wrong. I don’t expect to be accused of doing
He would have chosen to see his term through, he said, “which
would have been difficult for me just because, but I made
a judgment that my exit . . . [is] best for the majority.”
He said he didn’t want the Senate Republicans locked in difficult
campaigns to have his FBI investigation used against them
come November. If he takes himself out of the equation, he
said, the scandal will go with him.
This explanation also leaves political observers skeptical.
November, 1994: The Senate majority conference was slipping
quickly out of the control of its leader, Ralph Marino. Marino
had chosen the wrong enemy. The Long Island senator had invested
and lost much of his political capital in a battle waged with
the newly elected governor, fellow Republican George Pataki.
Marino disliked Pataki, as Richard Brookhiser wrote later
in the National Review, “for two reasons: Pataki had
won his State Senate seat by defeating a Republican incumbent
in a primary; worse, he had won it with the blessing of Change-NY,
a state anti-tax group, which had campaigned against Marino.”
When Pataki began his bid for governor, he had little in the
way of statewide stature. What he did have was Nixonian ambition,
and a powerful ally in U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, who, at the time,
was arguably the most influential political figure in New
D’Amato took the one-term senator under his wing, plucking
him from obscurity as The New York Times wrote, and
helped to engineer his unlikely victory over then-Gov. Mario
Cuomo. Emboldened by that victory, the two men set their sights
on another prime target, Marino, and found an ideal partner
in Sen. Joe Bruno.
Bruno’s story is a classic American tale, the kind that real
conservatives base their faith on: Born poor to a large working
family, he wins the heart of the good girl from the right
side of the tracks, buckles down, studies hard and works long
days to survive. His driving ambition and quick intellect
are soon rewarded, as he becomes a successful businessman,
a young leader in the state Republican Party, then Rensselaer
County party chairman.
He had been working for Assembly Speaker Perry B. Duryea,
and “saw that Rensselaer County needed help,” says Jack Casey,
the current chair of the Rensselaer County Republican Party.
Plus, he saw that Rensselaer County could serve as an ideal
springboard. “He had a future and a destiny, and all that.”
He took the reins of the struggling county committee after
Watergate, when the Republicans reeked of scandal. The city
of Troy was on its back, and the empire of Rensselaer County
Democratic Chairman Edward F. McDonough was growing.
had the Republicans on the ropes,” says Casey, “and he was
just hammering ‘em.” Over the next four years, Bruno helped
steer the party to some crucial victories, including the sheriff’s
race, and the majority on the Troy City Council. He parlayed
these into a successful bid for the state Senate in 1977,
with the support of former Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson.
The 43rd was a safe district, a Republican stronghold, Bruno
knew, and that gave him the latitude to “tackle sensitive
issues,” says Wade. “He exhibited self- confidence. He wasn’t
afraid of any issue. And I think his colleagues recognized
him as someone who was not afraid to go out and stand on that
limb.” He earned a reputation as an adroit legislator and
a loyal colleague. He chaired choice committees, and championed
controversial acts, such as the Lemon Law and the Seat Belt
Law, and even helped move pro-gay-rights legislation.
NY: The hand-picked Gov. George Pataki was the great
is a bit more demonstrative than Wade. “Sen. Bruno is a role
model for me. He is the best leader I have ever seen work,
and worked for. A lot of the leaders I have worked with have
had Machiavelli in their desk drawer or they have had it in
their head, and it is more about their ego, it is more about
their dynasty—getting their kids jobs and moving their little
group forward, and it is usually about being selfish. But
my observation of Sen. Bruno is: He believes that we can all
do this together . . . and money making is not a bad word.
I’ve read some Ayn Rand; it’s the same sort of thing. We can
all do this together, and we can all benefit.” He adds, for
a bit of hyperbolic flair, that Bruno “is up there with Ronald
It’s all about ego, it’s all about moving a little group of
friends forward—and how does this not describe Bruno?
his critics ask. After all, Wade points out, this is the man
who funneled $14 million of state money to Hudson Valley Community
College for a baseball arena, which was named, in gratitude,
the Jospeh L. Bruno Stadium. And one only has to look at Troy
to see how his little group of friends have had the run of
A perfect example, Wade says, was David Grandeau. It was 1993,
and the previous few decades had been rough on Troy. Saddled
with crippling debt, Steve Dworsky, the Democratic city manager,
was forced to refinance, using city properties as collateral,
including City Hall.
party’s goose was cooked that year,” says Wade.
An election came, Dworsky was out, and what followed was a
string of inept Bruno-approved city managers, ending with
Grandeau, a former employee of Bruno’s telephone company.
Grandeau was abrasive, obnoxious—he closed down the public
golf course for a day so that he could entertain, laid off
47 people, and put a for-sale sign on Troy City Hall.
All of his decisions, Wade suspects, came out of Bruno’s shop.
Next came Democrat Mark Pattison, the city’s first mayor.
He initiated a new, extremely unpopular, 21-percent tax hike
in an attempt to shore up the city’s finances. But in the
end, he was bailed out by the senator. Pattison aligned himself
with Bruno thereafter, and even endorsed him in reelection
Bruno buys his enemies, Wade is saying, and dominates his
When Thanksgiving weekend rolled around in 1994, the weakened
Sen. Marino made the fateful mistake of leaving Albany to
visit his mother. The Times reported that D’Amato,
state Republican Party Chairman Bill Powers, and Bruno and
his crew had spent the prior week positioning all the appropriate
pieces in all of the appropriate places. Pataki signaled that
he wasn’t interested in saving Marino and left for Florida.
Bruno’s troops went to work and, on Monday, Marino was an
ousted man. Bruno was the new leader of the Senate majority.
It was the only time in New York history that a majority leader
had been deposed.
It’s a tough business, politics, and Bruno played it hard.
By the time Marino finally resigned in 1995, he had been pushed
down in the ranks of Senate power, leaving without a single
committee position or leadership role.
As majority leader, Bruno worked hand-in-glove with Gov. Pataki
for the first few years, staking out big gains for the conservative
branch of their party. According to Senate documents, a partnership
between Bruno and Pataki “made New York the leader in cutting
taxes and enacting pro-business policies that have led to
the creation of more than 330,000 new jobs . . . produced
nearly $3 billion in additional business tax cuts and more
than $9 billion in income, sales, property and other tax relief.”
Workers-compensation reform saved employers more than $1 billion,
unemployment-insurance rate cuts more than $600 million. Another
$1.8 billion in regulatory relief. It is no wonder that Shaun
Marie Levine, the executive director of the Conservative Party,
now looks fondly back on those days. Fiscal conservatism was
the driving ideology.
is a game of inches, and I think that the inches became feet
in New York before anyone noticed what had happened,” says
Levine. She watched as the Bruno Senate, along with the governor,
abandoned the conservative principles she says they were elected
on, to move “left,” taxing and spending and bowing to the
powerful interests of the teacher and labor unions.
changed as he got older, he became more liberal,” boasts Assemblyman
John McEneny (D-Albany). “Or from where I sit, he moved more
to the middle.” Regardless, it was the smart move. “If you
wanna survive in New York state, which has a long tradition
of progressive movements, that’s what you have to do. Bruno
realized that if he was going to survive, he wasn’t going
to be able to take the knee-jerk conservative approach.”
He also realized that if he was going to survive, he would
have to feather his nest. As James Odato at the Times Union
wrote: “During his time, [Bruno] delivered or committed
more than $2 billion in state resources here, the lion’s share
to his district, which includes Rensselaer County and much
of Saratoga County. . . . The projects included many six-figure
grants, such as two $250,000 member items Bruno sent to Evident
Technologies Inc., a Troy high-tech company that a friend
directed, a $750,000 item to create the Saratoga Antique Automobile
Museum at Saratoga Spa State Park, and the biggest state grant
to a corporation ever—$1.2 billion earmarked for the proposed
Advanced Micro Devices computer chip plant in Saratoga County.”
Dozens of articles came out in the wake of Bruno’s retirement
announcement, detailing the developers, real-estate brokers,
union organizers, arts collaboratives, hospitals, low-income
housing groups, schools, and so on who benefited directly
from Bruno; in fact, it is hard to find a segment of the population
that didn’t receive government cash through the direction
of the Senator: $53 million for the Amtrak station, $22 million
for a “down payment” on high-speed rail between Albany and
Manhattan, another $50 million for the Albany Airport, $45
million for a cancer research center at the University at
this,” The Buffalo News’ Tom Precious marveled. “While
Saratoga is one of the state’s healthiest communities, Bruno
got part of the area designated as an Empire Zone, a program
that was originally supposed to give incentives to companies
to locate in distressed communities. The Bruno move paid dividends,
helping one manufacturer with a $20 million expansion and
the promise of hundreds of more jobs at a business incubator
they say that he brings home the money, who’s money is it?”
Wade asks rhetorically. “Taxpayer money. He has been instrumental
in helping with some projects that needed funding, but the
Joe Bruno stadium was something that no one asked for. The
county legislature had to approve that, and they couldn’t
even get all of the Republicans could go along with it. There
was a lot of arm-twisting that night. That’s a lot of money
for a tribute to one person. And AMD, they haven’t signed
has not all been, what you could call,” he says, “practical
application of funding.”
at how much the budget has gone up over the past 12 years,”
Levine trumpets. In 1996, the budget was less than $70 billion.
This year, it topped $120 billion. “A hell of a lot more than
Republicans, they say, lost control at the federal level in
2006, because of the war. I beg to differ: They lost control
because they forgot who they were,” Levine says. And Bruno
is no different. He traded politics for principles. “It irritated
us enough that we actually pulled his endorsement” four years
ago. A largely symbolic move (the senator was running uncontested),
but the Conservatives felt it had to make a strong statement.
“Spending was totally out-of-control.”
didn’t become the greatest society in the world, where people
are still dying to come here, by granting everything to everybody
without having them work for it,” Levine opines. “You could
work to become what you wanted to be. It wasn’t handed to
you.” And in that respect, it is especially irritating to
critics that Sen. Bruno, whose life has been a conservative’s
classic American tale, has seemingly turned his back on the
principles that made him who he is today.
McEneny finds it irritating, too, but not for the same reasons
as Levine. In many ways, he says, Bruno has made a career
out of drinking the Democrats’ milkshake. He points to a copy
of a monthly newspaper lying on his desk. In it, Danny
Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association,
says that he wants to see the Republicans retain their majority
in the Senate. “The nightmare is if you have a governor who
is the same party as the Assembly and the Senate.”
Can you believe that? McEneny asks. A union leader saying
that Democratic leadership would be a nightmare?
Bringing home the pork, aligning himself with unions, and
jumping at every chance to increase spending was the recipe
for how Bruno was able to forge such a powerful grip on Albany,
and hold on to it for so many years. It was survival politics.
If nothing else, he proved himself a master of exploiting
every ripe opportunity and winning the most important fights.
Remember Eliot Spitzer?
But now, when faced with the extremely likely, historic loss
of Republican control in the Senate, the former champion boxer
and consummate politician . . . retires? And not just retires,
but possibly leaves before his term is up. It just doesn’t
seem right, observers say. It’s out of character.
walking away, he has conceded the majority to the Democrats,”
Wade proclaims. “And now, when they only have a two-vote margin,
why do you think that he would walk away and leave them with
a one-seat majority? What’s the rush? Why embarrass your party
He has already lost Rensselaer County to the Democrats, Wade
says. “This year, in 2008, for the first time in Rensselaer
County’s history, the number of Democrats exceeds the number
is dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, the disaster in New
Orleans, and the price of gasoline going up,” McEneny says.
“In general, it is not a great year to run with an ‘R’ after
Perhaps Bruno doesn’t want to be at the helm when the Republican
Titanic finally hits that iceberg (a metaphor that Brian Premo
is fond of). Or, perhaps, as one long-time Republican insider
suggests, the choice wasn’t Bruno’s to make. The two-year-old
FBI investigation seems to have only intensified in the recent
months, with 30 boxes of Bruno-related Senate documents having
been reportedly delivered from the Capitol to the Albany office
of the U.S. attorney, and the many unconfirmed sources claiming
that the Justice Department will be handing the case over
to New York’s Southern District to handle.
guys will fucking kill him,” says the Republican insider.
A former senator is a lot less appealing of a target than
a sitting majority leader. It seems likely that this was at
the heart of Bruno’s decision, he says, but quickly adds,
with a glint that can only be described as glee, “I still
think he gets indicted.”