The departure of Sen. Joseph Bruno from his position as state Senate majority leader was accomplished in a little more than a day last week, from Monday evening, when the 79-year-old Republican announced that he would not run for re-election to the Senate, to Tuesday evening, when a new majority leader was elected.
Bruno did not give a definitive answer when asked if he would keep his seat through the end of the year, and there was speculation around the Capitol that he might not be seen there again.
By lunchtime Thursday, Bruno’s name was gone from the Office of General Services signs describing Capitol reconstruction projects, which always list the state’s big three — the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader. Bruno’s name was replaced by Dean Skelos, the senator from Rockville Centre, Long Island, who is the new leader of the Senate’s tenuous Republican majority.
Under FBI’s gaze
The speed was reminiscent of the disappearance of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was exposed in the early afternoon of March 10 as a client of prostitutes and announced his resignation less than two days later.
No such scandal was the overt cause of Bruno’s departure, although in the background, there is a federal probe that has been going on for the past two years.
“The investigation is a cloud that doesn’t seem to go away,” said Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, D-Cohoes.
The FBI and federal prosecutors have been investigating Bruno’s private consulting business, his horse racing connections and other interests and their potential intersection with public policy-making and funding. Bruno has been a key player in most major state policy and funding issues over the past 131⁄2 years, during which he has led the Senate. The federal investigation is likely to result either in a criminal indictment, a plea deal or an announcement that there will be no indictment.
Last week, Bruno again denied wrongdoing, saying that he is confident that he will be vindicated and that his decision to step down had nothing to do with the federal probe.
When Spitzer left office, he had few defenders, even in his own Democratic Party. He had been elected with almost 70 percent of the vote after campaigning as a reformer of Albany’s corrupt ways but made no progress in that regard and got embroiled in his own scandals.
Bruno, like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, does not command public confidence as measured in opinion polls. Neither man reveals his income from private sources (Silver works as a lawyer), and so the public has no way of knowing when there are conflicts of interest. Both have collaborated in keeping the Legislature’s ethics lightly regulated and out of the public eye.
Unlike Spitzer, Bruno is personally popular among people of all parties and political views.
“He was always courteous and open about what he thought,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “I never got the sense that our policy disputes were poisoning our personal interactions.”
Horner said Bruno and his Republican conference have blocked campaign finance reform and had to be dragged into supporting some other measures NYPIRG supported. Horner gives Bruno credit for taking the lead on banning indoor smoking in public places.
Bruno would occasionally bring Horner to news conferences, for example, when he was arguing for open leaders’ meetings and said he needed support. He had the same easy interactions with politicians and reporters, often defusing tension with a joke.
Canestrari said he felt emotional about Bruno’s departure, coming so soon after Spitzer’s, calling it “another unsettling event here at the Capitol.” Bruno, Canestrari said, “was great to work with,” and “his footprint is all over the area,” from Albany International Airport to the Rensselaer train station to the state university campuses. “There won’t be another Senate majority leader from this area in my lifetime,” said the 65-year-old Canestrari, and that could mean less money going to local projects.
Assemblyman Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, who has been endorsed by Bruno to succeed him as senator, said the two of them have similar backgrounds, including growing up poor and serving in the Army. That helps give them empathy for ordinary people, McDonald said.
McDonald appears to have a clear shot at the Republican nomination for Bruno’s seat. Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino, another Republican, considered running but on Thursday decided against it. On Friday, attorney Tony Jordan of Washington County announced plans to run for McDonald’s seat in the Assembly.
On the Democratic side, Brian Premo, an attorney from Rensselaer County, is the endorsed candidate for Bruno’s seat. Also running is former Saratoga Springs Mayor Valerie Keehn, said Saratoga County Democratic Chairman Larry Bulman. He said Saratoga Springs Supervisor Joanne Yepsen is considering the race. Also considering it is Michael Russo, district director for U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Often, Bruno cited personal reasons for the positions he took. He expressed compassion and outrage, and determination to pass legislation, on behalf of people such as the parents of Jonathan Carey, a 13-year-old autistic boy who was killed in state custody last year.
He also led the Republican conference leftward on labor issues. That was in part a recognition of the changing political realities in New York state, which has become more Democratic as the upstate Republican base has declined in relative population and economic clout.
Unlike some other Republicans, Bruno has appeared to be a natural ally of labor, plausibly standing in solidarity with people such as underpaid nursing home aides.
He has also been an ally of better pay for workers, including public school teachers.
New York State United Teachers Executive Vice President Alan Lubin issued a statement last week saying Bruno’s youth “growing up in a cold-water flat, with an immigrant father working in the paper mills, forged in Joe an unshakable belief in the power of education and the value of workplace protections for ordinary New Yorkers. Those ideals are his legacy.”
Labor unions have provided vital support to incumbent legislators in both houses — support Bruno needed to stave off a Democratic takeover. It is at least arguable that state government’s support of labor, especially public-sector unions, is a key reason why New Yorkers pay high taxes. Bruno and Silver were able to block a proposed school property tax cap this session that NYSUT opposed, despite public pressure and the governor’s support for it.
Walking a fine line
Yet in a skilled balancing act, Bruno retained the support of the business community, whose representatives also put out supportive statements last week. The Republican Senate has remained more supportive of business interests than the Democratic Assembly.
Bruno also moved toward the left on social issues, agreeing to fund stem cell research that could involve the destruction of human embryos. But even on stem cells, Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference said, Bruno mitigated the damage by scaling back Spitzer’s initial proposal and including an ethics board — albeit one that Poust regards as toothless.
“We think he has been on balance a good friend of the church,” Poust said.
Bruno did block a Spitzer abortion-rights measure, Poust said, and supported education credits for private schools, including religious ones. The education credits were blocked by Silver, Poust said. They were also opposed by NYSUT.
Bruno maintained his conservative credentials on criminal justice issues, leading the way to toughen sentences for violent crimes and expand the DNA database. Schenectady County District Attorney Bob Carney, a Democrat, said those measures deserve some of the credit for the state’s reduction in crime.
The Senate also provided some modest financial assistance to help young prosecutors pay off their school loans.
Personally, Carney said, “I always found him to be nothing but an intelligent and humane man who cared about people.”
As a young man, David Grandeau was a friend of Bruno who worked for his private telecommunications company, then under his patronage became Troy city manager and head of the state lobbying commission, where he got high marks from reform advocates such as Horner. He met his wife through Bruno; she worked for the senator.
At the lobbying commission, though, Grandeau fell out with Bruno, and the two haven’t spoken for about four years. Early last year, the state passed so-called ethics reform that left the Legislature untouched but consolidated the executive branch’s lobbying commission and ethics commission into a new Public Integrity Commission under the governor’s control. That led to Grandeau’s ouster.
“I don’t have any ill will” toward Bruno, Grandeau said. “I hope he feels the same way toward me. I’m sure he does. When this quiets down, I’ll make the call.”
Later in 2007, Spitzer sought to embarrass Bruno for his use of state aircraft on trips combining political activities and state business. Bruno broke no laws, but the flights played into the negative public perception of Albany leaders. By involving state police, however, Spitzer created his own Troopergate scandal and cover-up.
Grandeau is scathingly critical of Herbert Teitelbaum, executive director of the Public Integrity Commission, who he said “did everything wrong. He was trying to protect a corrupt governor” by making one of Spitzer’s aides, Darren Dopp, “a fall guy” in the scandal. (Walter Ayres, Teitelbaum’s spokesman, said Grandeau does not know the evidence in the case and “his comments and observations are not worth responding to.”)
Grandeau used no such harsh language about Bruno — nor do most people who know him.