Former New York State Senator Joseph L. Bruno, who rose from an impoverished family into one of the most powerful state politicians, died Oct. 6. He was 91 and had been battling cancer in recent years, according to a family spokesperson.
Born into a large family with Italian immigrant parents in Glens Falls, young Joe Bruno worked several jobs, graduated from Skidmore College and went on to become a powerhouse advocate for Rensselaer County and the Albany region.
Mr. Bruno was a state senator for nearly 32 years, from 1977 to 2008. During his last 13 years in office, he was majority leader. Before the end of his state senate tenure, Bruno served also as concurrently acting lieutenant governor for three months after Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal and was succeeded by Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson.
A Korean War veteran, regimental boxer and millionaire businessman, Joe Bruno was president of the New York State Jaycees, formally called the United States Junior Chamber [of Commerce]. This leadership training and civic organization, geared for people between the ages of 18 and 40, named Bruno as one of the five “Outstanding Young Men of the State” in 1964. Bruno realized great potential as a businessman, forming the Coradian Corporation in the wake of a 1959 Bell Telephone monopoly breakup. Coradian sold telephone systems to private businesses and government agencies. Bruno made millions on the eventual sale of that company.
It was Bruno’s savvy in business that led him also into politics, where he proved himself as champion of upstate New York, and a steadfast advocate for the Albany area, from the Hudson River northward toward his hometown. Early in his political career, Bruno served on the campaign staff of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Later, from 1969 to 1974, he served as special assistant to Assembly Speaker Perry B. Duryea.
Bruno is credited with steering $3 billion in state aid to the region, including capital financing and tax incentives for job-creating technology enterprises.
Bruno is also credited with protecting consumers. One notable legislation of his was a 1983 “lemon law,” protecting used car buyers.
A staunch conservative, Bruno favored the death penalty and opposed abortion and same-sex marriage. However, he later changed his perspective on same-sex marriage, about a year after stepping down as majority leader, and for the first time publicly expressed support. His reason for stalling the legislation, he said, was because the majority of his fellow legislators opposed it. The Times Union newspaper covering the Albany region quoted Bruno saying, in 2009, “I support that now. Really, in politics, in life, with legislation, timing is everything,” Bruno said. “It really comes down, in my mind, to equal rights for everyone.”
Amid complaints that state legislators were unethically mixing official and personal business, a federal inquiry determined that Mr. Bruno had reaped more than $3 million in fees between 1993-2006 by pressuring unions and other entities conducting business with New York State to invest pension and other public funds into his private concerns. These payments were called “gifts” that Bruno was required to report. As the investigation thickened, Bruno resigned his senate seat and his role as majority leader.
After facing other corruption charges, Bruno finally saw the end of his court battles in 2014 when a federal court in Albany acquitted him of fraud charges. Recently, The New York Times quoted Mr. Bruno as having declared, “This system, it works; sometimes it’s slow, but it works. It is over.”
His legal scandals notwithstanding, Senator Bruno kept the respect of his legislative colleagues on both sides the aisle, as well as his constituents.
“Senator Bruno was a strong leader and true gentleman who accomplished many important victories for the citizens of New York state,” said Gerard Kassar, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. “Serving twelve years as Majority Leader with Republican Governor George Pataki, they were a team that cut taxes, brought about economic growth and protected the public through tough anti-crime legislation. These were good years for New York State and Joe was a big part of it.”
Kassar posted an expanded statement on the Conservative Party’s website, speaking on the organization’s behalf.
“Senator Bruno was a leader that served New Yorkers well. He understood the problems that New Yorkers faced in business and everyday life. His passion for doing what was best for New Yorkers was well known as was his passion for getting things done right.
Senator Bruno was the same person when meeting with constituents or meeting with national leaders, a gentleman who used all the skills he learned through life, as a veteran of the Korean War, as a boxer, a successful businessman and as your next-door neighbor, to help make the world a better place.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is a former state senator who served alongside Bruno in Albany. He released a statement on Wednesday about Bruno’s passing.
“Our state mourns the passing of former State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who transitioned early this morning at the age of 91. Joe was more than a colleague during my time serving in the State Legislature — he was a friend, and someone who reached across the political aisle to provide me with meaningful support as I began my service in Albany. From his service to our country in the Korean War to his more than 40 years in elected office, he fought hard and spoke with conviction. Joe will be deeply missed, and I send my deepest condolences to his family.”
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie (D-.83rd A.D.) also issued a press statement on Wednesday on Bruno’s passing.
“I join with my current and former colleagues in mourning the passing of former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. A veteran and an elected official, he was dedicated to serving our country and our state. Although we were on different ends of the ideological spectrum, he always treated me like a gentleman and with respect.”
Vito Bruno, a business owner with the same surname as the late senator, and himself a candidate for State Senate 22nd District, said, “Joe Bruno was a New York State power house. He was a champion for New York State business owners and taxpayers. He was an artful negotiator who was able to bring balance to the New York State legislature. His passing should serve as a reminder that New Yorkers gain the most when our representatives are able to find middle ground. He will be sorely missed.”
Surviving Sen. Bruno are his longtime partner Kay Thompson and his four adult children with his wife Barbara Frasier Bruno, who died in 2008; five siblings, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.