City Hall News, August 15, 2007
Joe Bruno bets the exacta box.
That makes for a harder gamble—instead of just putting his money on one horse, he needs to guess which two will come out on top. As long as one places first and the other second, he wins, and collects a bigger payout for the double bet at the window downstairs.
He has $4 on the fifth race, hinging on horses 4 and 8. From a distance, the horses seem to be gliding, tearing around the oval track as the baritone announcer narrates their progress.
Bruno watches intently. They start down the stretch. He tenses slightly. One of his picks is ahead, the other one back in third.
“Come on, baby,” he says. “Come on.”
They whip past. Split seconds before they hit the finish line, he can see that 4 has slipped behind. He shrugs slightly, raises his eyebrows. And then he continues the conversation.
“You go on to the next,” he explains. “You play hard, and then you go on hard to the next.”
The Saratoga Racetrack is the State Senate majority leader’s home away from home, a highlight of his district, a favorite destination for him every chance he gets over the summer. Two days after Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office released its Troopergate report, Bruno won big at the track. Since then, he said, he is almost even.
Outside the track, Bruno is doing a little better.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) has been buffeted by the repercussions and recriminations since the Cuomo report found that some aides acted inappropriately, though not illegally, in their efforts to discredit Bruno by having troopers document his travel in state aircraft and then leak the records to reporters.
“I keep hearing that it’s Nixon-esque. And that’s sad, and it’s tragic, but it is,” Bruno said. “In New York State, we’ve never had anything like this in generations, in anyone’s memory.”
The hard-charging sheriff of Wall Street has been struggling to recover—the man who compared New York to Rip Van Winkle on inauguration day going to the Chautauqua Institution on August 7, to quote Reinhold Niebuhr. Humility and vigilance, he preached, are the only way to keep righteousness from turning into self-righteousness.
The next day, Spitzer came to Manhattan for a press conference on bridge stability and that morning’s subway system failures. He discussed engineering, clearing drainage pipes and bridge safety, keeping himself tightly focused away from the scandal and his mea culpa at Chautauqua.
The questions stayed on topic. Second from the last, he answered a question about MTA communication with riders, then allowed a follow-up.
“On the topic of communication, are you going to release the emails of your staff?” asked the reporter.
“The lawyers are dealing with that,” Spitzer said quickly, quietly. “I’m trying to stick to my day job.”
He called on the next reporter, eager to get past the question. He wanted to move on.
Bruno, in a far-ranging discussion between bugle calls at the racetrack that sunny Sunday, August 5, did not.
The problem, Bruno said, is deep and important, and has shaken his faith in Spitzer’s capacity to lead the state. He holds up a tightly crossed index and middle finger to show how well he got along with then-Attorney General Spitzer, but slams Spitzer’s record in that office as well.
“He buried people in the press. That’s his M.O. That’s what he’s done with me,” Bruno said.
That, Bruno believes, is no way for a politician to act. Spitzer and his aides point to their accomplishments passing “an historic agenda” during his seven months in office so far, including the increased education funding, the reforms of the health care system and worker’s compensation laws, and the property tax relief targeted at middle-income homeowners.
Bruno is unimpressed. To him, Spitzer has failed.
“He doesn’t appear to have the temperament to govern, to negotiate in good faith, to compromise,” Bruno said. Referring to Spitzer’s now infamous steamroller he added, “most people would be kidding. He meant it.”
Bruno has questioned whether Spitzer belongs in politics, and he has come to a conclusion.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think he does. He probably would have been great in real estate, where some people handle themselves differently than others. But real estate, you know, you’re a hard driver, you drive a hard bargain for some people. That’s probably where he belongs.”
Bruno was a champion boxer while stationed in Korea in 1954. Prod him gently about his two broken noses, and he will demonstratehow little cartilage he has by pressing the spot where his reading glasses sit. He has not sparred for several years—and only then, to demonstrate that his 43 external radiation treatments for prostate cancer had not slowed him—but he still works a speed bag five days per week. He still weighs within the light heavyweight 171-176 pound range, and regularly encourages people to punch him in the wall of muscle that is his gut.
He says his poor upbringing is extremely central to how he conceives of himself and his politics.
“I’ve never, ever forgotten where I come from,” he says, explaining that his views on health, tax and education legislation are still defined by his past.
He also carries with him the scars of that background.
“We were discriminated against because we were the poorest people in town, immigrants, called every name in the book. Irish were at one end, we were at the other. And it was kid’s stuff then, but it was very hurtful. In Catholic school, they discriminated. If you were from a wealthy family, you got treated differently than from a poor family, and that’s kind of sad.”
Bruno built himself up, eventually making millions with the sale of his telecommunications business. Throughout, he modeled his mentality on that of his immigrant father who held three jobs. Very much enamored of his own up-by-the-bootstraps story, Bruno seems to think of and portray himself as a man holding onto values from an age gone by. He basks in the sun and attention from old friends in his box at the Saratoga Racetrack, kicking back in his green jacket and bright tie with a lemonade, musing about the horses in August and the value he puts on a handshake.
“I say it out loud ’cause it’s the truth: I was a very average student. I had a lot of problems getting through high school, because I was very unhappy and working a lot.”
What he has always had, he believes, is the blessing of “a great intuition, a sixth sense.” He believes he can size a person up, and almost always be right.
“Nobody’s perfect. You make mistakes, and I’ve made mistakes with some people,” he said. “I made a mistake with Eliot Spitzer.”
After 12 and a half years as majority leader—32 years in office and another decade working in politics before that—Bruno still believes people misunderstand him. He insists he is not a villain or an obstructionist. On the contrary, he says, he does the job out of his own passion for New Yorkers, and believes that things move slowly mostly because the state is so complicated. If he were not so committed, he says, he would leave: He made enough money in business, despite his impoverished childhood playing with crates in the rail yard down the street from his one-toilet Glen Falls house. He simply wanted less taxes and government regulation, and won a primary and general election arguing that he was the best man to get the job done.
“Contrary to the press, it has been expensive for me to be in this business,” he insisted. “There are very few people in leadership positions that have a lot less net worth than they had 10, 12 years ago.”
He has many critics, including almost every Democrat in the state, and nearly all the newspaper editorial boards and good government groups. Opponents charge that he is a special interest crony out to protect his dwindling Republican majority at all costs—a self-serving friend of big business and irresponsible tax cuts, a calcified embodiment of all that has for so long been so wrong in Albany.
Last November, when overwhelming margins put Democrats in control of every statewide office while other races added two seats to the ever-growing Assembly majority and picked off a long time State Senate target in Westchester, the Democrats were gleeful. Spitzer the Savior was riding into Albany. Day one, if not everything changed, then at least everything might start to change. The status quo was going, and the Republican State Senate majority along with it.
Add to that the FBI investigation of government contracts awarded to an associate, and Bruno’s days, many believed, were numbered.
Spitzer poached State Sen. Michael Balboni (R) to be his homeland security secretary, then helped push Craig Johnson (D-Nassau) to victory in the subsequent special election in February. Though overtures to several other Senate Republicans ultimately fell flat, Spitzer persisted.
Six months ago, six weeks ago, stories about Bruno had him on the ropes. He absorbed the hits. Like a boxer, he waited to strike.
Now he is in an odd and unlikely place: After years of being tarred and vilified, Bruno is the victim, the sympathetic soul. On August 6, his situation was the subject of a human-interest piece run nationally on the Today show.
Bruno said he never expected this level of attention to the situation.
“I was kind of amazed and surprised,” he said, before carefully pivoting into criticism. “But on reflection it makes sense. This is an extremely serious allegation.”
Spitzer has never been known for tolerating his political enemies, and would probably have gone after the Senate Republicans even had that not been one of David Paterson’s preconditions for becoming his lieutenant governor running mate last year.
Bruno and Spitzer were allies in the selection process for the new comptroller, with Bruno leading his conference to back a recommendation of the independent screening panel over Thomas DiNapoli (D). They finished the budget on time and negotiated deals on budget reform, civil confinement and worker’s compensation.
Bruno cheered these deals. After all, as he sees things, they were simply executing his conference’s agenda, which had for years been blocked by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D).
“Shelly Silver folded up,” he said. “When he brags about what he got done, what he did was roll Shelly to get done in the Assembly what we prioritized.”
Nonetheless, after more than 12 years serving with Silver, who has been speaker for the entire time he has been majority leader, Bruno said he gave Spitzer “a lot of credit” for succeeding.
The budget done, Albany leaders began determining which issues would be forced into the familiar game of last-minute compromises. Silver wanted pay raises for legislators. Spitzer refused. Bruno—and later, Spitzer—backed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (Unaff.) congestion pricing proposal. Silver refused. Bruno wanted property tax cuts for seniors. Spitzer refused. Spitzer wanted campaign finance reforms. Bruno refused.
Bruno looked back fondly on the days when he and the speaker presented a united front from the Legislature in negotiating with Pataki, and attacked Spitzer for trying to break that bond.
“What he has done in the past is try and separate us. He goes and meets with Shelly, he meets with me, tries to put us together after the fact,” he said. “It’s almost like divide and conquer, which is a tactic that people try to use. Pataki tried to use it.”
Spitzer hosted public leaders meetings, arguing that they could substitute for the closed-door negotiations that have come to define Albany. Bruno attended, but he said he did so only as a measure of good faith. The meetings, he said, were little more than posturing for the cameras.
“What was accomplished at all those leaders meetings?” Bruno now wonders. “He was in charge, ‘it’s my room, my rules,’ his table, his gavel. You raise your hand to speak. It’s nonsense.”
Not that he is so eager to meet with Spitzer in private, either. In the heat of their sparring, Bruno announced that he would no longer be alone in a room with Spitzer, accusing the governor of consistently misrepresenting their conversations.
“He has kind of two sets of rules: one for himself and one for everybody else,” Bruno said. “He has an arrogance about him that’s very unbecoming. He tells you one thing constantly and then does another. Constantly. And it isn’t just with me.”
As the clock ticked on the legislative session, Spitzer stepped up the rhetoric. He wanted the new donation restrictions to be a signature achievement, and he clearly was not happy to find Bruno standing in the way.
He called Bruno an obstructionist. He called him a functionary of dysfunction. In at least one conversation with a state senator, he called Bruno senile.
Bruno fired back, repeatedly deriding Spitzer as a rich kid throwing a tantrum, a man with a history of verbal abuse and threats of physical violence.
And then came Troopergate.
As soon as the attorney general’s office released its report on Spitzer’s staff, the governor held a press conference to announce he was indefinitely suspending communications director Darren Dopp and reassigning William Howard, who had overseen the state police. A further reshuffling of staff followed.
That morning, Spitzer called Bruno to apologize. Bruno accepted, but with some skepticism that he had made the call just to be able to tell reporters that he did.
“I hope it was sincere. I accepted it, and I accept it as sincere,” he said, then paused. “You know what? Saying sorry is a nice thing to do, but it doesn’t get you good government, doesn’t get you results.”
When he reflects on his perseverance, Bruno casts himself in stately terms, the reluctant hero called upon to slay the dragon.
“I’m hearing from members who won’t go public, who are basically saying ‘it’s about time someone stood up to him.’ And these are Democrats,” he claimed. “It’s about time someone stood up to this guy who thinks truly that he is going to crush anyone in his path. That’s what he believes. Now what kind of mentality is that for a key person in government, that ‘I’ll crush you?’”
State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), an avowed political adversary of Bruno, said the story was less about heroics and more about media portrayal.
“I see it more as expectations were so high for the governor, with such a strong expectation created by Eliot Spitzer that he was the guy who was coming in to do all the right things and to take on the problems and clean up Albany,” she said. “Expectations are so low for what the ethical standards of Joe Bruno’s team are that even being caught doing something that wasn’t illegal makes them look good.”
That, Krueger believes, explains the reverberations of Troopergate so far.
“Eliot wears the white outfit. Joe wears the black outfit. So when Eliot got a little dirt on his outfit, it’s a bigger deal,” she said.
Krueger called the recovery classic Bruno.
“His charming and gracious skills can allow him to appear to have none of these problems, or none of the serious—from my perspective—policy problems that people should be holding him accountable for,” she said. “And those are skills.”
The grey mane, the flashing teeth, the manicured handshakes, the arms around the shoulders—Bruno uses them all to distract attention from the careful game of Albany chess he has mastered over the years. He speaks of being disheartened, joins Spitzer in calling for the high road of reconciliation. But he deftly wrings the situation for every political point, at every possible moment. With one basic demand, Bruno seems to think, he can bring Spitzer to his knees.
“One thing he has to do: testify under oath. ’Cause not many people believe that he didn’t know anything about this. This is a serious allegation. This is really serious. And frankly, I’m sorry that we are where we are,” Bruno said. “He’s got to get it behind us. He can’t stonewall, can’t cover it up. It’s too serious.”
Jeffrey Gordon, a Spitzer spokesman, would not address the issue of testifying, explaining that “it is not appropriate to comment” while the inquiries of Albany District Attorney David Soares (D) and the Ethics commission are underway. The State Senate investigations committee held a hearing August 9.
Bruno continues to pummel. This is not about him, he insists. He is simply doing the people’s business.
“The governor who allegedly would use the state police to spy on a rival in leadership—what will he do to anybody that’s out there?” he asked. “What will he do to get his way?”
Bruno leaves those questions unanswered, as well as the question about whether he has won. But he will describe the experience.
“It certainly wasn’t by any rules, so I guess you would call that a street fight,” he said. “If you box in a ring, you box with rules.”
Bruno demands consequences. Dopp’s suspension counts for something, but not enough, and Spitzer “slapped everybody else on the wrist.”
Some staff has been reshuffled. Others, like Spitzer’s top aide Rich Baum, have remained in their jobs.
Gordon, speaking for the governor, argued that “the attorney general’s report makes clear that no crimes were committed, but recommended sanctions for two individuals. The governor took that advice and took immediate action. The sanctions administered are appropriate given the nature of the indiscretions.”
That is not good enough for the majority leader, who thinks they should all be put under oath, but before that, fired.
“He wants to be the chief executive, and he ought to deliver a message. In fact, he ought to just start over, and everyone that’s around him should be gone,” Bruno said, arguing that Baum and Dopp are just some of the people who should lose their jobs.
Until then, Spitzer will not be able to govern.
“He has no credibility as the governor,” he said. “Not with the leaders. I don’t believe he has.”
Bruno came to power in 1995, in a Pataki-backed leadership coup against Ralph Marino. Never, Bruno insists, did he worry about getting knocked from leadership himself—a consequence, he and supporters claim, of his straightforward, direct, loyal approach.
“When you give loyalty, you get loyalty,” said former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R). “That is the key to his personal success.”
But Bruno said a coup is even less likely these days. He is 78, long past the age when most of the seniors whose property tax cuts he demanded retired. He has no plans to quit.
“As long as I get results, as long as I feel committed, challenged, useful, I want to continue,” he said.
He speaks about being reinvigorated. But, he said, his prime concern is preserving the power of his conference.
“One thing I know in my life, that nobody’s indispensable. It’s critically important that we protect the balance of the state,” he said. “Whatever happens in my life, in the future, we’ll have a Republican majority in the Senate.”
That in mind, Bruno is taking advantage of a moment when many Democrats are avoiding the topic entirely, publicly expressing their confusion and privately expressing their disappointment.
Looking to the other Albany leader—Silver—Bruno said the speaker should stop waiting for the governor, and start passing bills out of the Legislature for Spitzer to sign or veto. Bruno expressed hope that Silver will change his mind on this, and on his support for Spitzer.
“He’ll have to eventually,” Bruno said. “The pressure’s going to build and build.”
Spitzer’s office, meanwhile, declined response to Bruno’s comments on his ability to govern or criticism related to the Troopergate situation.
“The governor is more interested in focusing on the needs of New Yorkers and doing the peoples’ business than continuing to focus on matters that have already been thoroughly investigated by two independent entities,” explained Gordon, Spitzer’s spokesman.
The question now is what legislation Bruno will use his new leverage to get passed, since nearly every insider knows how well he can use advantages to extract concessions.
“It’s only a good moment if we accomplish the things that the people of the state want us to accomplish,” said Frank Padavan (R), a Queens state senator who was Marino’s assistant majority leader and has tangled with Bruno over the years. “Senator Bruno is a very pragmatic man. He realizes that his leadership on legislation will be the basis of judgment that the people will make.”
Down in the winner’s circle, Bruno presents the trophy in the featured race, named for the Lemon Drop Kid. Horse number 6, Loose Leaf, came in first. Past the Point was second. Believeinmenow placed third.
Bruno put no money on this race.
He chats with the jockey, pets the horse. Walking out to his car he is stopped repeatedly. He is the local celebrity, and to some, the local hero. “I like the way you came through it,” says one man. “Joe—you want to buy a slightly-used steamroller?” another jokes. Those who are close enough get a picture or handshake. Those who call out to him from a distance get a wave or thumbs-up.
The way Bruno sees things, he is riding high. He plans to call the State Senate into session for September, and has talked with Silver about bringing the Assembly back as well.
But when they return, Bruno plans to make sure things will be different than when they left.
“I’m not boycotting the governor. The governor wants to meet publicly next week and talk about what’s gone on with me and with Shelly, the others. Let’s talk about critical issues in an open forum, not show and tell, that ‘his room, his gavel, his rules,’” he said. “That stuff’s not going to happen to Joe.”