Joe Bruno has his loafers off in his vast sanctum on the New York State capitol’s third floor. He saunters around on the plush white carpet in dress socks. There’s a set of dueling pistols and pictures of himself in political postures, at groundbreakings or saddled up on one of his eight horses at a parade, in his Stars and Stripes cowboy shirt. Many of these pictures were taken a while ago, but Bruno, who will be 79 next month, somehow looks like he hasn’t aged. There are three golf clubs in his office and a green Astroturf mat against one wall. Bruno picks up a five-iron, checks his grip, pulls the club back slow, and rips a clean, full swing.
“Ohhh.” He stretches his back. “Ahhh.” He puts down the club. “See, that’s the problem. You should warm up when you do that shit. When you’re my age, you have to warm up.” He then plumps down in his cushy chair, picks up an empty water bottle from his desk, and wings it across the room at the garbage can.
Clank! A miss.
“Shit, first one I missed—first one I missed out of four,” Bruno says. “Now, that’s disturbing.”
Bruno is the most powerful Republican in New York. He has been the majority leader of the State Senate for twelve years, one of the so-called “three men in a room” who decided what, if anything, got done in Albany. The other two are State Assembly Leader Shelly Silver, a Democrat, and the governor, who was get-along Republican George Pataki until Eliot Spitzer came in, determined to change the way business was done in the statehouse. For the zealous governor, Bruno represents everything sclerotic and unprincipled in Albany. Spitzer’s been determined to get rid of him. Now, it may not be long before that happens.
On February 26, Bruno and the Senate Republicans lost a special election up in the North Country district, a rural swath of farmland along Lake Ontario that has been dominated by the GOP for 120 years. Money and manpower had been pouring into the area from both parties. The Democrats, led by Spitzer operatives, had a better candidate, a local dairy farmer named Darrel Aubertine, and a better machine. With this defeat, Bruno’s hold on the Senate has been reduced to one vote. All the Democrats have to do is flip one guy, or win another seat this fall, and they’ll have control. Says one Democratic operative: “If a cat has nine lives, Joe’s had 30. Eventually, it’s up.”
Up until last week, Bruno had been beating Spitzer in a war he says he never wanted. Bruno remembers the first time they met. Spitzer was attorney general. “I liked him. He was charming. Direct. Looked me right in the eye,” he remembers. He says they talked regularly during Spitzer’s campaign and “he says we’re partners, says we’re both going to govern together.” Bruno says he was shocked when Spitzer didn’t mean it. “I never saw the other side, that the man doesn’t think straight, that the man has a quirk in his mind. There is something wrong with his mind. He doesn’t think like most. He’s two-faced. He does not tell the truth. He looks you in the eye and tells you something that is totally untrue.”
In his determination to send Bruno packing, Spitzer did almost everything wrong. He was accused of using the state police to improperly obtain records on Bruno’s use of a state helicopter, and he didn’t help anything by allegedly telling a Republican lawmaker that Bruno was “an old, senile piece of shit,” especially at a time when Bruno’s wife, Bobbie, was dying of Alzheimer’s. Spitzer turned Bruno, once deemed a steward of Albany dysfunction, into a working-class underdog; in turn, the high-minded prosecutor-governor was redefined as a thuggish weenie. “He thought Bruno’s guile was easy to understand, but Bruno is defined by his ability to find creative ways to get through complicated problems,” says one source close to Spitzer. “These guys outdanced us on a lot of issues.” Until last week.
There are other things that are throwing off Bruno’s office putt. The FBI is expanding its two-year investigation of him. They dropped a new round of subpoenas on local labor unions to determine why some may have invested millions in pension money with a Connecticut firm Bruno worked for on the side, Wright Investors’ Service. Bruno insists he hasn’t done anything wrong, but he was worried that if the Feds looked long enough they could find something. “Who the hell knows if, inadvertently, there’s something there—that they uncovered, that they want to accuse you of,” he says. “That’s on my mind. I think, What the hell could they get somebody to say that I said or did? I know that’s what they try and do. They tried like hell to intimidate a couple of people.”