ALBANY, N.Y. — Joseph Bruno, a former boxer who became one of the most powerful men in New York politics and, later, successfully fended off federal corruption charges, died on Tuesday. He was 91.
The Republican, who served 13 years as the majority leader of the New York state Senate, had been battling cancer, according to the Albany Times Union. He was a resident of suburban Troy.
Bruno was perhaps the paradigmatic figure in an era of New York politics that lasted more three decades.
With his background as a boxer and a Korean War veteran, hair that was characterized as Hollywood-worthy well after he became a septuagenarian, and a general glad-handing nature, he was able to win over a room seconds after entering it.
Bruno was first elected in 1976, the second year of a period during which Democrats firmly controlled the state Assembly and Republicans had a seemingly permanent grasp on the state Senate. The GOP would lose the Senate fewer than five months after he resigned in 2008, beginning a decade of intense power struggles in a chamber that Democrats had traditionally written off.
He became majority leader thanks to a coup launched over Thanksgiving weekend in 1994, weeks after fellow Republican George Pataki ousted Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose son, Andrew, is the state’s current governor.
For the better part of 12 years, Pataki, Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver comprised Albany’s fabled “Three Men in a Room,” who met behind closed doors to hash out all the major issues facing state government.
Bruno often sided with Silver, a Democrat, during negotiations, as the two would unite against the governor to fight against proposed spending cuts and for legislative authority. But despite occasionally vitriolic public bickering and budgets that were passed months after they were due, Albany was relatively placid and disputes were settled through bipartisan compromise.
That system began to crumble in 2007. Bruno became the only Republican in a position of power in New York, thanks to the departure of figures like Pataki, who chose not to run for a fourth term in 2006.
New Gov. Eliot Spitzer attempted to steamroll legislators into accepting his positions on issues like campaign finance reform, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and the selection of a state comptroller after scandal drove out an incumbent, Alan Hevesi.
Bruno held firm against the then-wildly popular governor. When the Spitzer administration tried to pillory him for an alleged misuse of state planes for political purposes, the senator was able to turn the tables by accusing the governor of engaging in seedy surveillance practices. Months of investigations followed, leaving Spitzer too weakened to stand a chance of surviving the more sordid revelations about his personal life that emerged in 2008.
Bruno left not long after Spitzer’s resignation, as he was preparing to deal with looming federal charges involving allegations that he illegally mixed official business with his private interests. He was convicted on two felony charges in 2009.
There was little doubt that there was a blending of his state actions and personal business. But a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed the definition of what constitutes improper corruption earned him another trial, and he was eventually found not guilty in 2014.
He always defended Albany’s old way of doing business.
“The funniest line of attack was when the three men were drawn and quartered for the alleged crime of doling out funds to help them and their allies, as if politicians should be above self-interest,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir.
That self-interest has left its mark on the Albany-Troy region he called home. A local minor league baseball stadium bears his name, and he delighted in pointing out that he helped fund a regional semiconducter industry as well as improvements to Albany’s airport and a rail station in Rensselaer.
A funeral mass will be streamed by St. Pius X in Loudonville, N.Y., at a date to be determined.