Former State Senate Leader Joseph Bruno dead at 91

Oct 8, 2020

Former New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno has died at the age of 91 after a battle with cancer. Bruno, a colorful, larger than life character who once rode his own horse into the venue where state Capitol reporters were presenting their annual gridiron show, was leader of the Republican dominated State Senate from 1994 to 2008.

Bruno was known for his ability to bring money - millions of dollars - and major economic projects to his district. A stadium in Troy is named for him, among other enterprises that bear his name.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered condolences. His father, the late Mario Cuomo, was governor when Bruno was a state senator.

“He was an honorable respectful sincere public servant, who truly believed what he believed and worked very hard at it,” Cuomo said. “He was also a great representative for his district.”

Bruno was one of the so called "three men in a room," along with the Assembly Speaker and Governor, who controlled most of the major decisions in state government.

Bruno, speaking in 2007 during a particularly bad budget fight with then Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, said, “Letting them just roll over us, and dictate to us would be the wrong thing, that’s not democracy, that’s not representative government. It’s not fun, presently. I’d rather be getting along.”

Spitzer later left office in a prostitution scandal.  

Credit WNYC / WXXI

But Bruno could also be bipartisan in what was a  different era. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up poor in Glens Falls, was a boxer, a Korean War veteran and ran a phone company before being elected to the State Senate in 1976.

He won the leadership of the Senate in what became known as the "Thanksgiving Coup," when Bruno formed an alliance with newly elected Republican Governor George Pataki, and secretly garnered enough votes from his Senate GOP colleagues to depose former Senate Leader Ralph Marino.  

Pataki, in a statement, said he was "deeply saddened" by Bruno’s passing.

Bruno later formed an alliance with former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, against Pataki, when his interests coincided with the Democratic Speaker. Together they overrode a number of the governor’s vetoes. He also sparred with the powerful health care workers union SEIU 1199 over proposed budget cuts, but then became friends with the union's president, Dennis Rivera. They even had nearby vacation homes in Puerto Rico.  

In a statement, Rivera and Greater New York Hospital Association President Ken Raske called Bruno "a passionate defender of New York’s hospitals and their workers," and a wonderful friend who "will be sorely missed."

State Senator Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the Schenectady area, was Assembly Minority Leader during part of Bruno’s tenure as Senate Leader. Tedisco says he also considered Bruno to be friend, and the two former athletes often went running together. Tedisco says he used to tease Bruno, saying he did not really believe the Senator was a boxer, because he was so handsome.

"Even the governor calls you the most handsome legislator  in the nation, how could you never get hit?" Tedisco says he asked him.

Bruno’s answer, according to Tedisco, was that he had a great defense technique and that he “dodged a lot.”

"I said 'well you are doing a lot of that right now, working with the characters here,' " Tedisco said.

Bruno left public office in 2008, just before he was indicted on public corruption charges.  He was tried twice and was convicted on two of nine charges against him in the first trial. The conviction was overturned on appeal. A second trail on the remaining two charges ended in an acquittal. The trials revealed that Bruno and his aides frequently mixed the senator’s political and personal  business interests.

In his later years, Bruno, a widower, was the companion of Kay Stafford, the wife of the late North Country State Senator Ron Stafford. He leaves behind four children, several grandchildren and a great-grandchild.