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The Un-Reformed

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State Assembly Leader Shelly Silver addresses a press conference in Albany on a deal on worker’s-compensation reform, as Bruno and Spitzer look on.  

Bruno has secured cash and provided legislative support for the unions; they, in turn, have served as foot soldiers for Bruno’s Senate races. “He basically out-lefted the left” by forming an allegiance with labor, says one Democratic operative who often went to war against Bruno. “A lot of what he stands for is repugnant to me, but as a practitioner of the sport, in the raw exercise of power thereof, the guy is a fucking master.”

Bruno’s own triumphs as a lawmaker have not been legislative. Asked what bill he’s most proud of passing, Bruno stops to think. “The lemon law,” he says. It protects customers from buying used cars that don’t work, and passed in 1983.

Ask him about his legacy, and he’ll point to his mastery of the pork process. “Take a look around Albany. Take a look around Troy. Take a look at the airport. Do you think that airport would be there if I wasn’t the leader?” he says. “You know how the airport got there? We’re trying to close the budget and Shelly wouldn’t close. So Pataki says, ‘What’s it take to close?’ Shelly says, ‘I need a library in Brooklyn.’ ‘How much?’ Shelly says, ‘$65 million.’ Pataki says, ‘Well, that’s all right.’ It was a $100 billion budget. So I said, ‘It’s not okay with me. I don’t have a single member in Brooklyn.’ ‘So what do you need?’ ‘I need $65 million for the airport.’ Pataki says, ‘Shelly, do you care?’ ‘No, I don’t care, as long as I get my library.’ Pataki says, ‘Good. Done.’ ”

Back at the A-frame, next to the boxing gear, there is, under a canvas cover, one of Bruno’s latest purchases: a Mercedes convertible, candy-apple red. “Isn’t she a sweetie? Got her on eBay.” Next to the car, past his bag of Big Bertha golf clubs, is a large, circular, retro-looking hunk of plastic and coils. It looks like a spaceship. It’s a tanning booth. His daughter Catherine once owned a tanning parlor. “I fire her up, pop in once in a while.”

Upstairs is an addition he had built: a solarium with sauna and Jacuzzi. Bruno dips his finger in. “I keep it at 104 degrees.”

There’s an office phone by the tub. Through the windows, you can see his land with the mountains behind the trees, framing the view just so, and the endless fences for his horses in the foreground. “Is that beautiful?” he says. “You sit here, at sunset, or sunup, and watch these horses grazing, chasing each other, running around. It’s just the prettiest thing you ever saw.”

Bruno grew up without any of this, in Glens Falls, a blue-collar town north of Albany. His father shoveled coal at a paper mill. “When I was a little boy, we had pony rides down the street,” he says. “Rides cost 5 cents. Never had it. I watched all the other kids, you know, climb on those horses. I promised myself I would always own my own horse.” His mother was sick when he was a child. She had a gallbladder infection. When the doctors operated, they accidentally cut her bile duct. Seven surgeries later, she passed away.

His first job was at a bakery. He carried trays of pastries to the factory workers for their morning shifts. His pay was what they didn’t eat. In school, he was a failure. “They sort of kicked me along, you know? I told Sister Rose Madeline I wanted to be an altar boy. She laughed at me. Nothing worse. She said, ‘He’s too dumb.’ ” On summer afternoons, he learned to box. A middleweight met him in the park. “He’d get down on his knees and I’d circle around him and he’d wear out his pants circling on his knees. He taught me to punch straight and lead with your left. These kids that used to bloody my nose, I kicked the shit out of them.”

That’s about the time he met Barbara—known as Bobbie. He was 14. She was 13. They met one night at the YMCA, playing Ping-Pong. This was 1947, and Bruno’s job was driving an ice truck. Her father was a surgeon and chief of staff at the hospital, and didn’t approve of him. “Her father said the only way he’d agree to our getting married was if I would live there while I was in college.” He enrolled in Siena College and drove the ice truck to class.

Bruno’s break came when the owner of the ice company wanted to sell his route. “I begged. Give me a chance. Pleeasse.” He did. “I worked five in the morning till ten. I was making over $300 a week. More money than I seen in my whole life. When I went and got her engagement ring, I had dollar bills. I was laying them out, they were soaking wet from the ice.”


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