By John McArdle | October 12, 2020

Joe Bruno’s passing this week brought back a flood of memories for those who knew him.  The remembrances and tributes that poured in shined a bright light on a life well lived and an American success story that even Hollywood couldn’t have scripted.

For those who worked for him, his death really hit home.  To us he was a force of nature – fearless and indefatigable.  Someone we looked up to, respected, and loved.  He was more than a boss; he was our mentor and teacher and living proof that you can overcome whatever challenges life throws at you and come out on top.

I first met Joe Bruno in the fall of 1981.  He was there to greet me on my first day at the Capitol after being named a Senate Fellow in the Majority Press Office.  As a graduate student at RPI in Troy, his home district, he wanted to be there to welcome and congratulate me.

First day at the Capitol – 1981


Thirteen years later he would successfully challenge my boss at the time, Ralph Marino, to become Senate Leader during the infamous Thanksgiving Day coup.  And rather than it being my last day at the Capitol, he kept me on for the ride of a lifetime as the next 14 years would be among the more memorable times in my life and many others.


With the Leader 2003


Looking back, there are so many things about Joe Bruno that stand out.  The discipline, perseverance and tenacity.  The hard work and total commitment to getting results.  The strategic thinking – always two steps ahead of everyone else. The people skills and ability to disarm and charm anyone.  The attention to detail.  And “closing the loop”.

Closing the loop was a pet peeve of his. It meant letting him know whenever you completed a task or followed up on a request.  We kept him in the loop on everything.  A nightly “packet” went home with  him that included staff memos,  draft letters and press releases, requests for funding — pretty much anything that needed his okay.  It was his way of keeping on top of what his staff was doing.


Senate Chamber – circa 2003 – With Abe Lackman, Marcia White, Ken Riddett, Sgt. at Arms Bill Martin and Mark Hansen


He expected us to close the loop with others too, especially the Senators in his conference.  He thought it showed respect and made for a better functioning Senate.  And it served to improve communication, something he viewed as the reason for most problems.

“Communication, communication, communication.” It was the first lecture he gave us as Leader and he preached it relentlessly.  Good communication could prevent problems before they occurred and he excelled at it.

They said Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, but Joe Bruno had that rare ability to connect with anyone.  One-on-one or in a group, he could hold your attention.   He could bring a room to laughter or tears and not spend more than 10 minutes doing so.  He was not a believer in long speeches and had little patience with those that did.  He always requested to speak first which allowed for a quick exit when others were sharing a stage.


LCA Christmas Party – Senate Conference Room – 1997-98 (l-r) Jay Gallagher – Gannett; Judy Sanders – WRGB Newschannel 6; Yancey Roy – Gannett; Karen DeWitt – NYS Public Radio; Jim Dao – NY Times; Fred Dicker – NY Post; Jon Sorenson – Troy Record; Marcia White; Joe Bruno; Marc Humbert – A.P.; Michael Slackman – Newsday at the time; Ray Hernandez – NY Times; Joel Stashanko – A.P.; Greg Birnbaum – NY Post; Erik Kriss – Syracuse Post Standard.


But it was Joe Bruno’s word that mattered most.  If he shook your hand and  gave his commitment, you took it to the bank.  It’s the one thing that separated him from others.  No matter how big or small the issue, his word was good as gold.  In Albany that was a rare commodity.

He could be demanding and expected a lot from his staff.  You were on call 24/7 but he worked as hard or harder than all of us.

He was impatient.  He wanted to get things done.  He was frustrated that budgets were not passed on time and didn’t like the fact that a stubborn Governor or intransigent Assembly could slow the wheels of governance.  But he could control how the Senate functioned and made sure it did, with business-like efficiency.

When he became leader he ended what was known as  “Senate Time” which referred to the endless delays in starting Senate sessions and committee meetings.  If session was scheduled to start at 1:00 pm, that meant it might start at least two hours later.  That all ended under Joe Bruno.

Sessions started promptly when scheduled.  Senators who didn’t show up on time were fined a dollar for each minute they were late.  He restored order and the Senate became a much more functional body.

He was a stickler for holding regular Conferences with his members to get their input.  He was their Leader and they implicitly trusted him.   When he negotiated a deal, it was always subject to Conference approval.  They rarely, if ever, objected.

He was a believer in retail politics and made sure his Conference members prioritized their districts.  “Retail” he would drill repeatedly.  “Your constituents could care less how many bills you pass.  They want to see you back home.”

Bruno led by example, showing up at parades, community dinners and most everything he was invited to, even though his responsibilities as Leader consumed more of his time.  He knew the importance of shaking a hand, taking a picture and making a constituent feel they were important to him.  He made the time because they were his priority

Joe Bruno never gave up without a fight.  As a former boxer, he relished them.  He didn’t give up easy and you underestimated him at your own risk as many friends and foes learned.

One memorable dustup before he became Leader involved a meeting with former Governor Mario Cuomo during a prolonged budget battle.  Ralph Marino was on Long Island and couldn’t get back to Albany so he asked Bruno to represent him.  Cuomo used to tease Bruno, a vocal critic at the time, about his hair and good looks inferring there was little more to him.  He even took the extraordinary step of sending a mailing to Bruno’s district that, to put lightly, was not a fan letter.

The meeting didn’t go well.  Bruno bore the brunt of the Governor’s rage at the Senate’s refusal to agree to a budget that at the time, was critical to the Governor’s plans to run for President.  When he reported back to the Conference, Bruno recounted Cuomo’s verbal beat down and said he had a new appreciation for the challenges Marino had in dealing with a headstrong Governor.

As Leader, Bruno had his share of battles with headstrong Governors.  His 12- year partnership with George Pataki had its ups and downs but mostly it was a good and productive relationship.  When there were problems, they were mostly over legitimate policy issues or where he felt the Legislature’s role was being usurped.  More often, problems occurred when over-protective staff took issue with their principal’s treatment of each other.  But those times were few and far between.


Senate Chamber – late 1990’s – With George Pataki,  Joe Bruno, Zenia Mucha, Marcia White


His relationship with Eliot Spitzer was another matter.   It was kill or be killed.  The battles between them have been well documented and are all true.  The good thing is that it didn’t last long but it was no fun being in the middle of it.

David Paterson was another matter.  There was a genuine friendship between them and longtime respect for one another.  They were both Leaders in the Senate.  Bruno, as Vice President Pro Tem, even became Paterson’s acting Lieutenant Governor when a vacancy elevated him to the position.  It’s a shame that their time together as Governor and Majority Leader didn’t last longer.

There were rarely any dull moments when you were with Joe Bruno.  You took the stairs instead of an elevator.  You ate oysters and clams.  You played poker and lost.   You watched baseball at Yankee Stadium and the “Joe.”  And you had a ball doing so because he was so much fun to be with.


Majority Press and Communications staff – circa 2007


If you were lucky, you traveled with him.  Trips to NYC were always eventful and jam-packed.  A trip to Italy to visit the town where his father was born was definitely the highlight.  I’ll never forget driving through the streets of Bellona and finding the house his father grew up in.  Watching him thumb through the town’s registry and finding the entry that recorded his birth.  And attending the dinner in his honor as the town celebrated a favorite son.


Bruno – Bellona Italy – 2005


Yes, I was among the lucky to be there.  To write the press releases, act as his spokesman, offer advice, and sometimes do battle with those who tried to bring him down.  Along with such stellar staffers as Abe Lackman, Marcia White, Steve Boggess, Mary Louise Mallick, Ken Riddett, Ed Lurie, and so many others, we were like family and he was our patriarch.

When he retired, some did so as well.  I stayed on a few more years, then packed it in.    We stayed in touch and occasionally got together.  I helped him promote “Keep Swinging” his excellent autobiography that is highly recommended for those who want to dig deeper.

When I heard his cancer returned and wasn’t well, I was stunned.  We all thought he’d live forever and outlive us all.

He left some huge footprints:  The Joe in Troy, the chip fab facility in Malta, the Albany Airport, the Rennselaer train station to name a few.

But it was the people he touched, the families and community organizations he supported and countless others he helped along the way that mattered the most.    They and his family and friends were his real priorities.

He was one of a kind.  An icon and larger than life figure, the likes of which Albany will never see again.  He’ll be missed.

John McArdle is a media and government affairs consultant and President of Capitol Communications. In 1981, McArdle was named the New York State Senate’s first Richard J. Roth Journalism Fellow.  He later served as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson and press secretary to Deputy Senate Majority Leader John Dunne. From 1992 until his retirement in 2010 he was the Communications Director for the State Senate serving as the principal media and communications strategist and spokesman for Majority Leaders Ralph Marino, Joseph Bruno, Dean Skelos and their Majority Conferences.