By all rights, battered Joe Bruno should have been waiting in line at the state Crime Victims Assistance Board last Wednesday, seeking the redress that is rightfully his. The governor’s men had tried to get him, hadn’t they? Set him up, put the state police on his trail, concocted phony reports, leaked them to friendly reporters? It was all right there in a report put together by novice prober Andrew Cuomo, an investigation compiled in record time. It should have been called “Joe Bruno: Wronged.”
But the wily old Republican, savvy leader of the state senate, knew luck when he spotted it coming his way down the road. Two days after he read the report that lifted his spirits like a clear Adirondack morning, the 78-year-old senator headed for his favorite summer retreat, the racetrack at Saratoga. The press followed him there, and he gathered them around and gave a speech. This was “a really serious matter,” he said. There had been “abuse of a state resource . . . political espionage.” He had a message for Spitzer, a former prosecutor no less: “You have got to have integrity, governor. You’ve got to tell the truth.”
It was the best-attended press conference Bruno has had since December, when he admitted that, yes, the FBI was asking him questions, and yes, they apparently thought something was amiss in the relationship between his consulting company and state monies he’d doled out. And no, he could not go into details because his lawyers wouldn’t let him.
Back then, the FBI was only one of his problems. His Republican majority in the senate had slipped to just two, thanks to this Spitzer, who had taken a seat away from him on Long Island. The new governor had broken with the old rules, vowing to have his Democrats take power in Bruno’s house as well as the assembly. No one had heard this kind of talk in Albany in decades. The previous Democrat in the governor’s mansion, Mario Cuomo, father of the attorney general who issued the report, had understood the way things were: Republican control of the senate was one of those immutable facts of Albany life, like the little gift bags the lobbyists used to pass out at their cocktail parties before spoilsports like Spitzer ruined that, too. Those were dark, lousy days. But that was then.
When he finished his speech at Saratoga on Wednesday, the sun was shining brilliantly. Bruno went straight to the track. In his regular box there, he sipped a cool beverage, his snowy white hair bobbing up and down as he greeted friends and well-wishers. The race touts along the rail looked up and clucked. Look at that Joe Bruno, they said, there’s one lucky SOB. See what horse he’s betting on.
Eliot Spitzer’s ham-handed assistants—the ones who committed aggravated idiocy by abusing the state’s wonderful Freedom of Information Law in their zest to nail the GOP boss—aren’t Joe Bruno’s only guardian angels. His cause would be lost without the funds to finance electoral campaigns, and in recent years, there has been one angel by his side through the good times and the bad: Michael Bloomberg, mayor, has been ever willing to reach into his pocket to help pay for Bruno’s campaigns.
Last fall, as Spitzer’s tsunami threatened to wash away the senate’s Republicans on his way into office, Bloomberg stepped forward with a timely $500,000 contribution to Bruno’s senate campaign committee. The seawall held. In January, when the newly elected governor forced a new election for a Nassau County senate seat, the mayor came up with another $250,000 for the Republican cause. Bruno’s candidate lost, but Bloomberg’s solidarity was true.
Then, in mid-June, came the disturbing message from the mayor that he was leaving the Republican Party, changing his voter registration to that of “non-affiliated.” Bloomberg sent a message to Bruno: Don’t worry, I will still stand by you.
In case Bruno had any doubts about the matter, there arrived at the offices of his senate campaign committee a check for $100,000 from a Manhattan firm called Geller & Co. It is an accounting business run by a man named Martin J. Geller, who happens to be the mayor’s personal accountant (he is also a registered Democrat, but go figure).
The two men are so close that Geller sits on a four-person executive committee that serves as guardian of the mayor’s interest in his huge financial information company, Bloomberg LP, estimated value $20 billion. Now that is trust.
In an amazing coincidence, Geller’s $100,000 check was dated June 15, the very day that the mayor dispatched a messenger to the offices of the city’s Board of Elections to deliver his divorce papers from the GOP.
Bloomberg’s party-affiliation change came as he moved around the country, giving stirring speeches about getting guns off the streets and rallying mayors everywhere to join him in condemning the failure of both political parties to push harder for gun-control legislation.
The biggest enemy, Bloomberg said in his speeches, was the National Rifle Association, which bought off legislators with its contributions. Shameful, said the mayor. The speeches were so inspiring that people started to talk about Bloomberg for president. “I am not a candidate,” the mayor said. Then he started a website called Mike2008.com.
If you go there, you will see that much of it is dedicated to the mayor’s rightful concerns about illegal guns. This past month, for instance, the mayor’s main concern was Congress’s cowardly failure to repeal legislation that bars law enforcement from sharing serial-number information on the guns used in crimes. Bloomberg got 225 mayors to sign an open letter to Congress about this measure, called the Tiahrt Amendment after the blockhead congressman from Kansas who attached this rider to the appropriations bill. “It is a stealth attack on law enforcement,” Bloomberg said. “Give police access to the information they need to do their jobs.”
“Hear, hear!” said a group of Democrats in the New York State Senate. They put together their own resolution, calling on their congressional colleagues to vote down the Tiahrt rider. Joe Bruno, majority leader, saw that it never made it to a vote.
“We try to raise these issues and—nothing,” says Eric Schneiderman, a Democratic senator representing Manhattan and the Bronx who has sponsored numerous gun bills. “I couldn’t even get it on the floor.”
Don’t Bloomberg’s enormous contributions help prod the majority leader on these issues? Not as far as legislators can see. “Bloomberg’s financial relationship with Joe Bruno doesn’t seem to extend to the mayor’s pro-gun-control agenda,” says State Senator Liz Krueger.
This year, the state’s leading gun-control organization pushed for a bill that would obligate gun dealers to secure their inventories against theft, the same way jewelers lock up watches at night. It would also require that employees be trained to spot “straw buyers”—the illegal gun-buying tactic targeted by Bloomberg’s headline-winning sting operations at gun shops down South.
“We thought after the Bucky Phillips incident that we might win this,” says Jackie Kuhls of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. Ralph “Bucky” Phillips was the upstate fugitive who last year plundered a gun store and later shot and killed a state trooper and wounded two others. That bill also never made it to the floor of Bruno’s senate.
This is how the NRA wants it. Bruno gets an “A” rating from the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, the state’s NRA affiliate. Association president Ted King speaks with warmth of Bruno: “He knows the difference between a lawful gun owner and a criminal.”
As for Bloomberg, King shrugs him off as inconsequential to his own line of work. “Michael Bloomberg knows exactly what he is doing. He is running for president.”