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Sen. Joe Bruno shocked the state with his announced retirement, but the story of this controversial brawler could be far from over

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

An American Tale

By Chet Hardin

‘I 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’ dazed remarks.

“This 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.”

The 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.

“I 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 McDonald.

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 career.

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?

“There 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 anything wrong.”

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 York state.

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.

“Eddie 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.

Change NY: The hand-picked Gov. George Pataki was the great Conservative hope.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Casey 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 Reagan.”

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 the town.

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.

“My 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 bids.

Bruno buys his enemies, Wade is saying, and dominates his friends.

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.

That changed.

“Politics 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.

“Joe 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 Albany.

“Consider 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 facility.”

“When 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 the contract.”

“It has not all been, what you could call,” he says, “practical application of funding.”

“Look 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 inflation.”

“The 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.”

“We 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.

“In 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 this way?”

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 of Republicans.”

“It 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 your name.”

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.

“Those 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.”

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