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The Un-Reformed

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Joe Bruno, left, and Mayor Bloomberg talk to reporters in Albany.  

If he’s indicted, he could get ousted, even if he’s innocent. If he’s convicted, he could go to jail.

For inspiration in this time of need, Bruno does what he’s always done: He recites a poem—“It’s Lord Byron, I think”—to himself. “Fight on, my men / I’m wounded but not slain / I’ll lie me down and bleed awhile / Then rise and fight again.” Then he repeats it. “You know how many times I’ve said that to myself when I’ve been bleedin’? That’s been my life. I bleed. I rise. I fight again.”

Bruno doesn’t come to the capitol if he doesn’t have to. He prefers to work from his farm, a 125-acre spread in the town of Brunswick, a twenty-minute drive away. His office is tucked inside a cozy A-frame cottage. He takes me in through the basement, which is where he keeps his speed bag, part of his early-morning workout. He straps on a pair of training gloves and starts to punch. First the left. Whap! Then the right. Thap! Then together. Then harder. Then faster. Bruno was his division’s boxing champion in Korea. He throws his punches from the shoulder, just like the pros do it, rocking in rhythm. Whapatathapatawhap …

“I’ve always been a physical person,” he says, moving on to the heavy bag, which hangs from the ceiling on a chain. “I’m just physical. If I couldn’t be physical, I’d be cooked.”

He is “indefatigable,” says former U.S. senator Al D’Amato, and Bruno’s stamina was a critical factor in staging and winning the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” of 1994. The target was Ralph Marino, then majority leader. Marino “had lost his way,” says D’Amato, Bruno’s ally in the coup, and wasn’t supportive of their man for governor, Pataki. Not three weeks after Pataki won in November 1994, Marino went to his mother’s house for Thanksgiving. When he returned, he was no longer majority leader. Working the phones throughout the holiday, Bruno, D’Amato, and their band of loyalists had secured enough votes for Bruno to take over. It is the only time in state history that a majority leader had been overthrown.

Bruno developed a reputation among his allies as a playful, reasonable power wielder. “A leader’s leader,” says D’Amato. “His motivation is a sense of fairness.” He and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are golf buddies. “He’s a fourteen handicap. I’m a sixteen. He hits the ball pretty good,” Bruno says. “But I’d be a pretty good fourteen too if I played as much as he does.”

“He’s a decent golfer. Scrupulously honest in golf,” says Bloomberg. “He’s just the most honest, straightforward person you can meet. If Joe tells you he’ll do something, you can take it to the bank. When he disagrees with you, he will tell you. If he says he won’t talk about it publicly, he doesn’t. If it sounds like I like the guy, I do, and I respect him. He’s a working-class guy who worked for everything he’s ever had.” Bloomberg is one of the State Senate Republican’s most generous financial supporters; in turn, Bruno has delivered key political cover for many of Bloomberg’s projects, such as congestion pricing and gun control. “He’s just fun to be with,” says Bloomberg. Bruno makes them popcorn when they get together.

Even Bruno’s adversaries admit he’s got his charms. Says a Spitzer lieutenant: “For two guys who couldn’t be more different in terms of pedigree, they both share a love of the fight. What the governor doesn’t like are pussies, and Joe is definitely not a pussy.”

“I have grown to like him,” says Silver. “He is very warm, very good with people. He has tremendous patience with his conference.”

Bruno is chummy with Silver but lost patience with him decades ago. “The reason we have dysfunction in Albany is Speaker Shelly Silver,” he says. “That’s why. He will not govern. His style is to do nothing, hold you hostage, make you grovel, then trade you for what he wants. He kills everything.”

Silver’s response: “Tell him that is governing.”

Over time, Bruno’s politics have turned from Rockefeller Republican to radical self-preservationist. “I have had to get more moderate,” Bruno says. “You can’t be, in this state, an extremist. Not and survive.” Bruno’s most controversial, and productive, alliance is with the state’s powerful health-care-workers union, SEIU 1199. Bruno sealed this pact by taking then-leader Dennis Rivera on a horseback ride. “This is the reason they call me a liberal,” Bruno says. “Guess what? I’ve met thousands of these workers. A sick parent can break up a family. Make your life miserable. I know. I lived with it for eleven years. These workers are the lowest-paid people in the health-care-delivery system. They change bedpans. They change linen. In my heart, I feel it’s wrong to pay these people $8 an hour. So they call me a liberal. So what?”


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