Power Guy Joe Bruno Risks Pataki’s Wrath by Embracing Giuliani

Since he became majority leader of the State Senate in 1994, Joseph Bruno hasn’t pretended to be anything but the voice of upstate Republicanism-suspicious of all things urban and dubious of do-good government types. As the personification of rural New York’s interests, Mr. Bruno is a popular fellow in his neck of the woods. Why, there’s a race named in his honor every year at Saratoga’s famed racetrack.

So what’s a Rensselaer County kind of guy like Joe Bruno doing with a city slicker like Rudolph Giuliani? And, more to the point, why is Mr. Bruno infuriating friends of his fellow upstater, Gov. George Pataki, by squiring Mr. Giuliani around points north?

Those are exactly the questions being asked in Albany, where Mr. Bruno’s enthusiastic support for Mr. Giuliani’s potential Senate candidacy is seen as a bold political statement of independence from Mr. Pataki and, especially, his right-hand woman, Zenia Mucha.

Mr. Bruno is nothing if not public about his newfound affection for the Mayor.

On March 30, a record crowd at the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce dinner enthusiastically applauded Mr. Giuliani’s recitation of reduced crime rates. And Mr. Bruno, the county’s most powerful politician, pronounced his blessing on Mr. Giuliani’s tenure. “We’re proud of New York City, proud of the job you have done, proud that you are with us here tonight,” Mr. Bruno said. And then, to top it all off, he added: “If [Mr. Giuliani] makes a decision to run” for U.S. Senate, he’ll have Mr. Bruno’s support.

Once upon a time in Republican-land, all of this would seem a matter of course. But with fires breaking out all over the place, Mr. Bruno’s surprisingly strong support of Mr. Giuliani has become the talk of a party that is increasingly acting like a fractious donkey instead of a ponderously predictable elephant. And it comes at a time when some of Mr. Bruno’s Republican colleagues in Albany, including allies of Pataki, have little good to say about Mr. Giuliani and indeed are thought to be looking for a way to stop his prospective Senate campaign. Mr. Bruno’s support for Mr. Giuliani gives the Mayor instant credibility among upstate Republicans who generally regard New York and its mayor as suspicious aliens from the lost world of big government.

Of course, Mr. Bruno, who represents parts of Rensselaer and Saratoga counties, generally has been as skeptical as his constituents about New York City. That makes Mr. Bruno and Mr. Giuliani the Republican Party’s answer to the identical cousins of The Patty Duke Show . There’s Rudy, who’s been most everywhere, and Joe, who’s been to … well, Rensselaer. Mr. Giuliani is pro-gay rights, pro-rent-control, pro-urban. Mr. Bruno is none of those things, sometimes aggressively so. Mr. Bruno called Mr. Giuliani “Judas” for supporting Mario Cuomo in 1994, but there he was, just a few days before Good Friday, sharing supper with the Mayor.

Don’t think Mr. Bruno’s testimonial passed without notice in nearby Albany, where, as in any state capital, the political is personal. The Governor’s communications director and minister without portfolio, Ms. Mucha, may be Mr. Giuliani’s bitterest enemy in the New York Republican Party. Mr. Bruno’s attachment to the Mayor has worsened already brittle relations between the Senator and the Governor’s office.

In fact, tensions between Mr. Bruno and Ms. Mucha reportedly erupted at a recent fund-raiser for the prison guards union in Albany, where at least one eyewitness said he overheard a heated exchange between Mr. Bruno and Ms. Mucha over Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Bruno, however, insisted that the conversation was pleasant enough. “Zenia talks in a very animated way and she gets very enthusiastic,” he said. “I think some of the people mistook some of the body language for some sort of disagreement, but we didn’t have any disagreement at all.” Ms. Mucha did not return Observer calls.

Besides, Mr. Bruno added, “I wouldn’t have an argument with Zenia. If I wanted to have an argument, it would be with the Governor.” And therein lies the crux of the problem. “Zenia treats him like shit,” said one high-level official. “She has no respect for the institution of the Senate.”

Added a Giuliani adviser: “Bruno wants to be taken very seriously. He wants to be seen as the second or third most powerful man in the state. This is an opportunity to show the Governor: The Mayor appreciates me.”

Mr. Bruno, a shrewd politician, certainly knows exactly what he’s doing. “There are two ways that politicians come to support somebody,” said political consultant Norman Adler, who is close to both the Assembly Democrats and the Senate Republicans. “They do it under the theory that the person is an ally, or they do it under the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Mr. Giuliani is Ms. Mucha’s enemy; Ms. Mucha is Mr. Bruno’s enemy; therefore, Mr. Giuliani is Mr. Bruno’s friend.

The tension between the Senator and the Governor’s office predates Mr. Bruno’s alliance with Mr. Giuliani. Indeed, it goes back almost to Mr. Bruno’s elevation to Senate majority leader in 1994. Senator Alfonse D’Amato orchestrated Mr. Bruno’s rise to power, which led to the ouster of then-majority leader Ralph Marino, a sworn enemy of Mr. Pataki. Relatively little known, Mr. Bruno had the support of William Powers, the party’s chairman and a fellow resident of Rensselaer County.

Mr. Bruno, described as a made-to-order ally of the first Republican Governor in 20 years, soon let it be known that he was not going to function as a rubber stamp. And that infuriated the genial Mr. Pataki’s designated bad cop, Ms. Mucha. “Zenia would just as soon control all the voices of the Republican Party,” as one lobbyist put it.

Relations between Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bruno weren’t helped during the 1997 debate over rent regulation, when the final deal was cut while Mr. Bruno was away celebrating Father’s Day. An outspoken opponent of rent regulation, he was presented with a fait accompli, which kept most regulations intact. A year later, the strains became public when Mr. Bruno bluntly attacked Ms. Mucha in front of 200 Saratoga County Republicans. And they exploded again in February, when unnamed Senate Republicans were quoted by New York Post columnist Fredric Dicker demanding that the Governor fire Ms. Mucha. Though Mr. Bruno wasn’t named in the story, Albany insiders saw his fingerprints on it. And after the story appeared, Mr. Pataki snubbed Mr. Bruno by skipping a fund-raiser for the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

Judas, Meet Benedict

In the midst of this roiling cauldron, Mr. Bruno has taken it upon himself to scorn the wishes of Team Pataki by backing Mr. Giuliani. One member of the Pataki camp referred to Mr. Bruno as “Benedict Arnold.” (The title of “Judas,” of course, already was taken.) “It’s bad,” said the official, describing relations between the Senator and the Governor’s office. “It makes it very difficult because Bruno is a stand-up guy. One of those guys who when he gives their word, it’s good,” That is not how the Pataki camp sees Mr. Giuliani. “The underlying problem with Rudy and his administration is they don’t keep their word, and you can’t negotiate with somebody who doesn’t keep their word,” said another source familiar with the Governor’s thinking.

Mr. Bruno voiced support for Mr. Giuliani’s Senate bid as early as January, and spent much of February trying to broker a meeting between the brawling Governor and Mayor. “While there have been some public differences, when I have talked to them privately I don’t hear major differences,” Mr. Bruno said. “I’ve communicated that to each of them.” Mr. Bruno did get his meeting-it took place at the Governor’s New York City offices March 4, after which it was bickering as usual.

All of this has spilled over into the ongoing budget debate. One budget watcher saw it as no accident that the Mr. Giuliani addressed the Rensselaer Chamber of Commerce just two days before the Governor and state lawmakers once again missed their April 1 budget deadline. “Twice as many people came to that dinner as usually come,” the observer noted. “Nothing happens in Rensselaer County without the support of Joe Bruno. He was reminding the second floor”-of the capitol, where the Governor has his offices-“that he has political capabilities of his own.”

Budget discussions broke off April 6 during a three-way meeting of Mr. Pataki, Mr. Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in part because Mr. Pataki asked Mr. Bruno to promise not to override any vetoes, said a source familiar with that meeting. A day later, Mr. Bruno went on an upstate radio station and said he was prepared to override a Pataki veto if Mr. Pataki didn’t agree to a Senate version of the budget, which splits the differences between Mr. Pataki and Mr. Silver. In politics, an override is a declaration of war, especially when it’s within your own party. But the Governor “is taking a very, very hard line,” said a Republican source familiar with the negotiations.

Needed: A Local Hero

Some of Mr. Bruno’s calculations on matters Giuliani have a very simple explanation: He wants to continue as Senate majority leader, and he can do so only if Republicans hold onto their majority in the Senate. A strong U.S. Senate candidate on the G.O.P. ballot will bring out the Republican vote, which has been laggard in Presidential election years. “The feeling is we need a local draw at the top of the ticket,” said one associate of Mr. Bruno. That is especially true in New York City, said Mr. Bruno. “In the city we have the greatest number of Democrats collected,” he said. “That’s where the Mayor has run well. That’s where Republicans will need the most support.”

Never mind that the State Senate has been Republican since Lyndon Johnson was President, that 100 percent of incumbents were re-elected in 1998, and that the Republican Senate and the Democratic Assembly have an understanding that allows the majority in each house to draw up district lines, virtually guaranteeing that the majorities will remain as they are.

And never mind that Mr. Bruno “is under the mistaken notion there’s such a thing as coattails, however much we observe that’s not true,” as political scientist Gerald Benjamin, a professor at State University of New York College at New Paltz.

That’s the way people in Albany think.

All of this is taking place in the post-D’Amato New York Republican Party. Though Mr. D’Amato reportedly has been fanning the anti-Giuliani flames, at least one source familiar with the ex-Senator’s thinking claimed he tried to broker a peace between the Mayor and the Governor “then washed his hands of the whole affair.” Without a doubt, the feud is stirring deep unease among the national party, which views it as attempted fratricide.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bruno is doing his best to stamp out the fires. “I haven’t had serious strains recently with anyone in the Governor’s complex,” he insisted.

Hard to believe. Mr. Bruno, in choosing Mr. Giuliani, is apparently choosing against Mr. Pataki. And, writhe as he might under that burden, Mr. Bruno has made his choice.