CAPITAL REGION – Former State Senate majority leader Joseph L. Bruno, who grew from a Depression-era youth in Glens Falls to be one of the most powerful politicians the Capital Region has ever seen, died Tuesday at his home in rural Rensselaer County.
He passed away peacefully at his Brunswick home surrounded by his loving family, according to a statement issued Wednesday by a long-time spokesman. He was 91.
Bruno, a legendary Republican known for his lion’s main of white hair and rugged good looks, was a member of the state Senate from 1977 to 2008, and became the chamber’s majority leader in 1994, after leading a coup against then-leader Ralph J. Marino of Long Island. He remained majority leader until 2006, when he gave up the position under the pressure of an FBI investigation into possible corrupt practices.
As the leader of the Senate Republicans in New York, he joined Gov. George E. Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as the powerful “three men in a room.”
His strong interest in upstate economic development and in his district — which was in Rensselaer and Saratoga counties — led to billions of dollars in investment in the Capital Region, laying the groundwork directly or indirectly for SUNY-Polytechnic and the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant, which have transformed the Capital Region economy.
“There’s no question that GlobalFoundries would not have happened without Joe, that is an irrefutable statement,” said former Malta town supervisor David R. Meager, who was supervisor during the GlobalFoundries negotiations. “He put up the money for water and sewer infrastructure and everything like that. I don’t know if he would think that is his greatest accomplishment, but it has worked out very well.”
But not all was rosy, and by 2006 the FBI was investigating some aspects of his life, leading to his indictment on charges of theft of honest services — working on his own behalf, rather than that of the state’s residents.
In 2009 and again in 2014, Bruno stood trial in federal court in Albany on corruption charges tied to his “outside” income as a business consultant. The trial revealed much about the inner workings of the state Capitol, with clerical staff routinely doing work for his consulting business after-hours, and occasions when businessmen he consulted with received state grants, or needed aid in getting awarded grants paid.
His 2009 conviction on two charges related to honest services fraud was overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of the crime to require proof of official action taken for a bribe, and his second trial ended in acquittal. There was a celebration immediately afterward at Jack’s Oyster House, the downtown Albany power brokers’ watering hole he frequented throughout his career.
“Having learned to box as a kid to defend himself from bullies and continuing to knock around a heavy bag even in his senior years, Bruno’s underdog persona led him to fight hard for the growth of New York State and the Capital Region throughout his lifetime,” the family statement said.
Numerous Capital Region buildings are named for the Senator who became affectionately known as “Uncle Joe,” including Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, home of the minor league baseball Tri-City ValleyCats. It remains commonly known as “The Joe.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recalled that Bruno had worked with his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, during the 1980s and 1990s. Bruno became majority leader in 1994, the year the elder Cuomo was defeated by Pataki in his bid for re-election.
“Joe Bruno had a long life. I wish him and his family peace,” Cuomo said when asked about Bruno during a conference call. “We were on different sides of the table politically. But he was an honorable, respectful, sincere public servant who truly believed what he believed and worked very hard at it. We can have differing political beliefs but we can still respect each other at the end of the day. And I wish the nation could do more of that.”
The son of immigrants, Bruno grew up poor on Glens Falls’ East Side, making ends meet by selling ice off a truck, including during his years as a college student at Skidmore College. He served in the United States Army in Korea, then went into business. He laid out his story himself in a memoir, “Keep Swinging: A Memoir of Politics and Justice,” in 2016.
Before being elected to the Senate in 1977, Bruno served on the campaign staff of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, was president of the New York State Association of Young Republicans, and chairman of the Rensselaer County Republican Committee.
Millions of dollars in state funding Bruno secured in the early 2000s led to development of the Luther Forest Technology Campus in Malta and Stillwater, and in 2005-2006 he worked with Pataki to attract Advanced Micro Devices – what later became the GlobalFoundries plant – to the site. The incentive package cost the state $1.4 billion, but GlobalFoundries has exceeded its job creation promises, and now has about 3,000 employees.
Bruno began working on the Saratoga County site after the North Greenbush Town Board in 1999 refused to consider plans for a computer chip plant there — a major embarrassment for Bruno, who had pushed the plan for his home county. The deliberations by the Malta and Stillwater town boards lasted from 2002 until 2004, but the technology campus was eventually approved, with the goal of attracting a semiconductor plant.
“People just assumed there was all this pressure from Bruno,” Meager recalled. “I remember (he and then-Stillwater supervisor Paul Lilac) were led into this very ornate room at the Capitol, the majority leader’s office, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘How can I help?’ There was never any pressure, and our review went on for some time.”
Recognizing that the Capital Region was on the precipice of major economic change, Bruno also secured money for the full reconstructions of both Albany International Airport and the Rensselaer train station.
His work put him in touch with wealthy and powerful business leaders, and his personal and public spending eventually attracted negative attention. In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer ordered state police to track Bruno’s state-funded travel. Bruno, in turn, accused Spitzer of using state police to spy on him. Spitzer was later admonished by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Tributes to Bruno from people in politics poured in on Wednesday.
“Senator Bruno was a true lion of the Senate, an incredible leader, public servant, father, fighter and friend, always working for the betterment of our upstate region and the entire state,” said state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, who holds the Senate seat that was once Bruno’s.
“Senator Bruno was a dynamo and an incredible fighter for our area who delivered time after time for the people he represented because he would never give up and he never surrendered – he was the definition of a happy warrior,” said State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville. “When I served as the Assembly Minority Leader and he was Senate Majority Leader, I saw, firsthand, what a tenacious fighter he was for his district, the members of his conference, and for our state as a whole.”
“There aren’t adequate words to encapsulate Senator Bruno’s life and legacy, but simply put, he was a giant,” state GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said in a statement. “He represented all of the qualities you could ask for in a leader: charm, smarts, toughness and an unabiding passion for getting things done — not just on behalf of the people in his district, but for all New Yorkers. ‘Uncle Joe’, as he was so affectionately called by those who knew and worked with him, was a true man of the people and he never forgot where he came from.”
Bruno is survived by his children, Joseph, Susan, Kenneth, and Catherine, and his longtime partner Kay Stafford. He also leaves behind grandchildren, Rachel, Nicholas, Richard, Elizabeth, Anna, Victoria, and Aiden, and his greatgrandchild Alessandra, as well as his sister Florence and his four brothers Vitaliano, Arthur, Tony, and Robert, and many nieces and nephews. Joe was predeceased by his devoted wife of 58 years, Barbara Bruno, his Sister Rose DelSignore and his brother Peter.
To honor his life and accomplishments, the family will be celebrating a Funeral Mass at St. Pius X in Loudonville at a time to be determined. The service will be livestreamed on Facebook.
In addition, the New York State Senate will be web casting the Funeral Mass in a Hearing Room in the Legislative Office Building, according to the family statement. “On the way to the Mass, Bruno will be driven past ‘The Joe’ for one final trip to the stadium that he loved to visit and looked forward to throwing out the first pitch of the season on many occasions,” it said.
His final resting place will be at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, where there will be a private burial service.