In a glass case by a window in Joseph Bruno’s antechamber are three handguns. There’s a little five-shot number, a Bruno family heirloom whose exact provenance the State Senator would rather not discuss. And there’s a matching set of heavy, smoothly rounded dueling pistols.
The case caught Mr. Bruno’s eye as he emerged to greet a visitor one recent afternoon. He lifted one of the big guns and outlined the wide barrel with his finger.
“Fifty-caliber—you could cut someone right in half with that,” he said wistfully. He weighed it in his hand and considered the notion of walking 10 paces away from your opponent, turning and firing. “That’s civilization,” he said.
Then the majority leader of the New York State Senate turned and pointed the gun at the tall wooden door that is the entrance to his office: “This is for Pataki or Silver,” he said. “Whoever walks through that door first.”
With his preposterous, soap-star good looks, resplendent teeth and thick white hair, Mr. Bruno, 76, would be at home in a toga on the set of a 1950’s production of Julius Caesar. These days, many of his fellow Republicans would cast him as Brutus. Mr. Bruno, who lives and keeps his horse farm across the Hudson River in Rensselaer County, has long been the largest presence in Albany of the three men—Governor George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mr. Bruno himself—who control the Capitol.
For the last decade, he has been the state’s No. 2 Republican, operating at times in the shadow of the Governor. But now Mr. Pataki is a lame duck, and the state Republican Party is bracing for a bad year. Circumstances have allowed Mr. Bruno the chance to assert his control of what remains of New York Republicanism.
The Senate Majority Leader hasn’t been shy about mixing it up with his fellow Republicans. Not long after Mr. Pataki pronounced his blessing on the U.S. Senate candidacy of Jeanine Pirro, Mr. Bruno told reporters that he didn’t think Ms. Pirro should enter the race, crippling her campaign. He has flirted with Mr. Pataki’s nemesis, Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano, who ran against the Governor twice on the Independence Party line and is considering a third run in 2006 as a Republican. And, because of his interest in Mr. Golisano, Mr. Bruno hasn’t embraced the party establishment’s favored candidate for Governor, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld.
“Joe’s the man right now. The guy is, I believe, stronger than ever,” said one rueful Republican in Mr. Pataki’s camp. “Until he decides what he’s going to do in the Governor’s race, it’s going to continue to impact Weld’s fund-raising, because there are an awful lot of people who believe that Joe Bruno is going to be the only Republican standing in January of 2007.”
Mr. Bruno’s influence extends well beyond the Capital District. He also has crossed Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose West Side stadium plan he helped to kill. He has no remorse about his decision to join Mr. Silver in blocking the plan, and says he wonders why the city was unable to persuade the Jets to move to Queens, a move he supported. Told that some in Mr. Bloomberg’s camp still resent his role in foiling the West Side stadium, Mr. Bruno leaned in toward his interviewer.
“I have no regrets,” he said. “And the other thing that we have shared with whoever wants to hear it is [about] the Javits Center. We voted to double the size of it. Is that being built? No. They all have their hands in their butts, frankly, O.K.? And down there in the World Trade Center site—with billions of dollars committed.”
(In reply to Mr. Bruno’s criticisms, the Mayor’s office referred The Observer to a spokeswoman for the Empire State Development Corporation, which is responsible for the Javits project. The spokeswoman rejected the notion that the project had stalled. “We are at the end of the design process, and we will put out a general project plan next month,” she said. “All of this is on the schedule which we announced in June.”)
Mr. Bruno turned 76 in April, and says he has no plans to go anywhere until he stops feeling “that burning desire.” He still charges up the stairs to his third-floor suite of offices, which includes a grand conference room whose ceiling, at about 30 feet, makes the 15-foot marble fireplace look to scale. He works in a smaller private office, with a bust of Ronald Reagan on his desk (there’s a bust of Mr. Bruno himself at the Albany airport, welcoming visitors to his domain) and a large flat-screen monitor on the wall silently playing scenes of deer running through Yosemite National Park. He is, says Senator Liz Krueger, the Manhattan Democrat charged with capturing the Senate from Mr. Bruno’s Republicans, “charming and gracious and dangerous.”
The setting in Mr. Bruno’s office is serene, but the mood around the Senate Republican conference is not. The Republicans, who have controlled the Senate for all but two of the last 80 years, face a demographic crunch: There are fewer Republicans, and fewer upstate New Yorkers, with each passing year. The party now holds 35 of the 62 seats in the State Senate, but an energized Democratic minority has started to chip away at that lead. Ms. Krueger, the chairwoman of the Democratic State Campaign Committee, told The Observer that she anticipates a Democratic majority in the State Senate in 2008.
The majority leader has heard the worrying news as well. His caucus recently met with the Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who, according to the Albany Times Union, told them to start worrying about the 2006 elections now. Mr. Bruno’s conference isn’t getting any younger, but Mr. Bruno has reportedly leaned on some of his senior members to hold off on retirement and so reduce the chances of Democrats winning the open seats. The senior State Senator, Staten Island’s John Marchi, recently celebrated his 50th year in the Senate. He will turn 85 next May.
So the majority leader takes nothing for granted.
“I think about that day, night and weekends,” he said of protecting his majority. “And when I’m talking about gubernatorial tickets, and when I’m talking about other things, I am very focused on maintaining and increasing our majority.”
He has also moderated the Republicans’ line recently to protect some of his incumbents. A bill legalizing over-the-counter emergency contraception may have provided one Westchester Republican his razor-thin margin of victory, and a side deal to raise the state’s minimum wage also protected the Republicans’ left flank.
But Mr. Bruno maintains that many of the Senate’s compromises match his personal evolution. He was first elected to the Senate as an ideological conservative in 1976. He burnished that image during his first decade or so in Albany. “Twenty years ago, I was in a different place,” he said. “Now I really think I’m more pragmatic, more realistic, and I just relate more to people’s lives.”
As an example, he offers his support for the emergency-contraception bill. “Think about it: A youngster can go in and have an abortion in this state without her parents’ permission. And yet you can’t, as a 15-year-old, go in and take the morning-after pill without your parents’ permission and without a doctor’s prescription,” he said. “That was ludicrous.”
It’s been a long journey for Mr. Bruno, who was born “the poorest kid in Glens Falls,” a struggling upstate town where he was one of eight children. His career has included a stint in Korea (he was the undefeated light-heavyweight boxing champion of his division). He founded and sold a company that made telecommunications equipment before entering the State Senate. He helped to make an obscure colleague named George Pataki the governor of the state, and then, soon after Mr. Pataki’s election, he seized the majority leader’s post in the Senate.
But the episode that offers the best insight into his life now took place in the late 1940’s in Glens Falls, when he started a small business delivering ice back in the days when people still had iceboxes.
“If you stopped that truck in the 90-degree temperature, you’d see a puddle half as big as this room,” he recalled. “That was your profit. That was your money. And you learn to hustle. I used to run like hell.”