After Korea, he came back and sold encyclopedias and frozen-food plans door- to-door. “These were one-night closes, no callbacks.” Customers pushed him out of their houses. When he rang, they dumped water on him from upstairs. “That was really my training in politics,” he says. “Selling. That’s what life is.”
The tour of his farm continues to the living room. A hospice nurse walks in. She had been upstairs, taking care of Bobbie. “Saddest thing you ever saw in your whole life,” Bruno says. “I don’t think she weighs 85 pounds. I don’t think she knows me anymore.” It was January 6, a Sunday. Bobbie died the next evening. They had been married for 57 years. “She gave me my chance,” Bruno says. “She believed in me.”
Bruno started out a businessman. He bought and sold horses. He co-founded a high-tech phone company, which he was hoping to sell and make millions from. He joined the young Republicans because he believed in less government and felt the wealthy crowd would be good for his business. He could sell them stuff—stuff they could show their wealthy friends. “I always had it in my head, like owning a horse, that I wanted to be in public service,” he says. “I wanted to do things for people.”
“I used very bad judgment. Paid all my attention to the Senate. Let all my business interests go,” Bruno says. “Twelve years ago I was worth a hell of a lot more than I’m worth today.”
In 1969, he volunteered for Perry Duryea’s campaign for Assembly. Bruno was such an efficient foot soldier that Duryea, who became Speaker, offered him a job as special assistant for personnel. Then Bruno ran for county chairman and won. Then a State Senate seat opened up, and he ran for it and won. To date, Bruno has won sixteen straight elections, and the friendship of people like Donald Trump, who lets him use his Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach for fund-raisers.
Sometimes he spends more than he raises. In 2006 and the first half of 2007, Wayne Barrett, an investigative reporter at The Village Voice, found that Bruno spent $55,000 on a Mar-A-Lago fund-raiser and raised far less. Committee receipts also showed a remarkable $92,000 for meals and meetings at Albany institutions like Jack’s Oyster House in the same period. Within that lot, there were receipts for $18,225 at the Saratoga Raceway, mostly filed during the summer racing season, from the track, every other day.
“I don’t think Joe Bruno has paid for his own lunch since he came into power,” Barrett says.
But Bruno says this is how he gets things done. “I’m campaigning year-round, you might say,” he says. “I’m right in my own district. Every time I go into a restaurant, I’m shaking 20 or 30 hands.”
Bruno’s point of view is that he could be richer than he is, if not for the Senate. Because of his increasing political responsibilities, he resigned from his phone company, and it tanked. This still irks him. “I used very bad judgment. Paid all my attention to the Senate. Let all my business interests go.” He’s convinced public service has cost him, requiring him to keep his investments in blind trusts that leave room for his partners to make mistakes. “I’m probably the only guy in a high political office that’s worth a lot less than when he took that high political office. Twelve years ago I was worth a hell of a lot more than I’m worth today.” Even his side gigs, deals with friends and investments, have bombed, he complains. “In the last twelve years, about every deal I’ve made I’ve lost money on.”
He was introduced to executives at Wright Investors’ Service by a mutual friend over a decade ago. His relationship with Wright is the subject of the FBI investigation. “I took a look,” he says, and found the company to be “small, neat, clean, pristine.” Bruno signed on as a consultant. “I provided the entrée. In that business, the biggest problem is access. I provided access.” Bruno, who makes $121,000 a year in salary as majority leader, believes there is nothing improper about steering people he does business with in politics to open portfolios at Wright. There was no quid pro quo, he says. If Wright wanted to meet with trustees of a union looking to invest pension money, Bruno would make the phone calls. “My pitch to them was, ‘If you like what they have to say, take it to the next level. If you don’t, say good-bye.’ ”
It’s an arrangement the Times editorial board has called “unnecessarily sketchy.” Russ Haven, NYPIRG’s longtime Albany watchdog, says Bruno has mastered the art of riding the “seams” of what he can do to make money on the side, but not break the law. “Ethical behavior is about actual conflict, but also the appearance of conflict,” Haven says. “For business and union people to be steered by a public official to a vendor could create the impression—on them and the public—they might get better access or continued access to what they currently enjoy, or something more. And that’s troubling.”