• A horse of a different angle
In 42 years as a newspaper journalist, I had one column of commentary killed. It was about Joe Bruno’s handmaidens.
Joe Bruno, for those outside New York State, reigned as the GOP’s State Senate Majority Leader for many years, wielding a Leno-jawed countenance, carefully barbered silver hair and Machiavellian turn of mind to become one of the three most powerful people in the Empire State. The other two were Sheldon Silver, the New York City Democrat who ruled, and still does, the Assembly as Speaker, and whoever happened to be occupying the Governor’s Mansion at the time, no matter which party was in power.
After one of my columns pointing out some Bruno scalawaggery prompted a series of letters to the editor from various of his supporters, I wrote another explaining to readers what the connections were between Bruno and the letter writers. Rex Smith, the editor of the newspaper and not on my list of good editors even before this move, killed that column at the last possible minute, vaguely muttering something about “Let them have their say.” As if they hadn’t already, eagerly supported by him in several ways:
Their letters were printed quickly, rather than having to wait in line behind others on other topics as was the usual practice. But, don’t for a moment think anyone in the power structure had whispered in this editor’s ear. Heaven forbid such thoughts.
Bruno, Silver and the governor of the moment. They were the infamous “3 Men In a Room” who decided who would get how much money in each year’s state budget, wheeling and dealing in secrecy and presenting their budget as a fait accompli for the cowardly lions of the Senate and Assembly to dutifully approve in sheep-like lockstep, often without even reading the complete document. Included in the document was a slush fund, usually in the $200 million range, the 3 Profiteers divvied up to hand out to pet projects to garner votes for their next re-election bids.
This was the kind of governance that prompted the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law to annoint as the nation’s most dysfunctional legislature.
Bruno, whose monumental ego was massaged by people who understood the quid pro quo of having taxpayer money shoveled their way, was a regular on the pay-and-preen circuit, appearing at various edifices named for him for his generosity with my money.
Bruno’s ego and deal making may have come back to bite him squarely on his seat of power. Even though he retired from state government last year — and immediately registered as a lobbyist — a federal grand jury last week indicted him on an eight-count felony charge, alleging he used his elected position to extract $3.2 million in private consulting fees from clients who sought to use his influence. Bruno, 79, pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the charges when taken to court.
The matters of ego and bad business decisions go hand-in-hand. Throughout the Capital Region of New York, Bruno’s home area, we have evidence of the cult of personality that thanked him for giving them my money by labeling such things as the Joseph L. Bruno Town Park in Hoosick Falls, Joseph L. Bruno Family Resource Center of the Commission on Economic Opportunity for the Greater Capital Region Inc., the Joseph L. Bruno Scholarship from the New York State Summer School of Orchestral Studies, the Joseph L. Bruno Theater in the Arts Center of the Capital Region, the Joseph L. Bruno Stadium at Hudson Valley Community College, the Joseph L. Bruno Pavilion at Saratoga Spa State Park, the Joseph L. Bruno Biotechnology Development Center at Albany Molecular Research, the Joseph L. Bruno Lobby in the Greenbush Area YMCA … . I can’t go on.
There were many instances of Bruno’s sloppiness in assembling facts to go along with his dreams and daydreams. One of the most egregious came when he tried to help pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Troy, NY, a small city of 40,000 or so nestled on the east side of the Hudson River near the state capitol.
It was in 2003 that Bruno called an open-air press conference in Troy to present us with something he oh-so-modestly called “A vision presented by Senator Joseph L. Bruno.” Vision? I called it a hallucination.
Two years later, stuck in a newspaper conference room for an editorial board meeting, the then-State Senate majority leader finally conceded on the record that the vision had evaporated.
So, what really happened to the $470 million “Harbor at Troy” waterfront project he had hyped — the one that promised such components as a Hudson River Heritage Center, a Troy Festival Center, a waterfront park and greenway, a harbor and marina, entertainment/ dining/retail spaces, a hotel and conference center, structured parking, aquariums, replicas of historic ships, a campus for U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, a Hudson River monitoring system and on and on and on?
It all sunk under the weight of its own hot air when some very basic reporting was done. The kind of verification you might expect a powerful politician to do before attaching himself to such a project.
At the time, Bruno told us a consortium called the Hudson River Group would take care of everything. He said the developers behind the proposal helped create the widely praised Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Faneuil Hall in Boston and a riverfront project under construction in Hartford. However, neither Bruno nor anyone on his staff had conducted the due diligence such an audacious plan called for before throwing his considerable political weight behind it.
The developers Bruno praised had not, as it turned out, personally worked on any of the cited projects; the U.S. Navy had neither pledged $50 million to the project nor had plans to decommission the USS Albany and anchor it here as we were told.
In that editorial board meeting, Bruno expressed disappointment that the project had dried up, but, incredibly, once again said the people behind it had done wonderful things in Baltimore, Boston and Hartford.
“Actually, they had not,” I reminded him. “That was precisely one of the fallacies in that presentation.”
Bruno paused, stuck out that jaw, then replied petulantly, “Well, anyone who saw all those great plans they laid out would have been absolutely convinced the project would work.”
If it had, we’d be seeing some signs of the 650 construction workers who were supposed to hammer it all together, or the 1.3 million visitors we were to expect every year according to the good senator’s projections. Instead, all we saw was a political leader reluctant to admit he had been jobbed by some fast-talking developers. Or, was he intentionally part of the misdirection?
Initial exaggerations and fibs aside, did the project have merit? Bruno’s office announced six months after the original plan unveiling that a consultant would be hired to re-evaluate the project. In this same meeting two years later, he grudgingly revealed under persistent questioning that, no, no one had ever been hired and, no, no one would be. In other words, all those months later we finally were told on the record that we had been served another heaping platter of baloney.
So, as the particulars of the current bill of indictment make their way into the court proceedings, we’ll see a clash of egos, a web of intrigue, a pattern of demagoguery and, perhaps, a lesson or two on equine anatomy.
How so? Bruno, who among many pursuits is a lover of race horses and has been involved in that field, once was asked what he thought about criminal charges against two organizations he had long supported with my tax dollars — the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the New York Racing Association. He gave this thoughtful, statesmanlike reply:
“It doesn’t make sense to look up a dead horse’s rectum. You want to look up a dead horse’s rectum, go ahead; it’s not something I’m going to do.”
Should he not fare well in court, he might prefer that view than having to look us in the eye.