Joseph L. Bruno had wandered off again. Walking through the Albany International Airport, with a crush of staffers, media and well-wishers in tow, Bruno was supposed to be headed toward the observation deck that bears a bust that honors the former Senate majority leader, and now former senator.
Bruno was saying goodbye Friday, the last of many "lasts" over the past few weeks, and he couldn't resist the stares from people at the Colonie airport. He bee-lined toward anyone at all - airline attendants, passengers, custodial workers, a baby.Some recognized him, others responded to his greetings with curious looks. He chatted, he shook hands, and before moving on, he introduced himself: "I'm Senator Joe Bruno."
But as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday, "everybody calls me Joe," Bruno said.
Friday was his last day in office as senator of the 43rd District, representing Rensselaer and Saratoga counties, a post he held for 32 years, 14 of them as Senate majority leader.
As the top Republican in the Senate, he cultivated a persona that alternated between down to earth and larger than life, joshing and jousting with the news media, colleagues and political foes. He took on the seemingly unassailable Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who eventually left the Executive Mansion amid a prostitution scandal.
Even on his last day, Bruno took a few shots at Spitzer, at one point calling his successor, David Paterson, wonderful "compared to that previous piece of work."
His final workday hours were, in keeping with character, spent with the news media, sponsoring a bus tour to view his achievements, the ride paid for from his $1.7 million campaign coffers.
The bus traveled his district, stopping for photo ops at the landmarks created through his power and influence over millions of state dollars - the Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, nicknamed "the Joe"; Rensselaer Tech Park; the former site of Rensselaer High School, where a riverfront residential and commercial development is slated; the Rensselaer Train Station; the UAlbany East Campus; and Albany International Airport.
The start of Bruno's final day on the job was much like any other day. He woke up around six in the morning, walked up the hill with his dog and worked out. He has taken to targeting certain areas of the body for short intervals - Friday it was the upper body, shoulders, and arms. He made a lot of phone calls and met a few "big people" from Long Island to talk business over lunch at the Troy Country Club.
Boarding the bus, Bruno used the intercom to speak to the reporters, photographers, and cameramen surrounding him. He cracked jokes, threatened to drive the bus himself, reminisced about the "inefficient, unresponsive" Legislature he inherited when he became leader.
Bruno talked about the last day of session, June 23, when he shocked the Capitol by announcing that he wouldn't seek re-election.
"When I was in here Monday when session was closing, I wasn't sure that I would actually pull the trigger to say I wasn't running," said Bruno. "I kept weighing all the ramifications in my mind, and all the scenarios. ... I knew one of the first things people would do is say, 'Ah, he thinks they're going to lose.' "
Bruno leaves the Senate Republicans with a majority at its slimmest margin in decades - 31 Republicans to 30 Democrats. His successor, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre on Long Island, must fight to maintain the majority in the November elections.
Walking into "the Joe," the baseball stadium that is home to the Tri-City ValleyCats, Bruno stopped mid-step and looked up at the banner that reads, "Welcome to Joseph L. Bruno Stadium." Once inside, he worked the crowd - a strong handshake and the shoulder squeeze for the men, cheek kisses for the ladies clustered in an admiring gaggle for the 79-year-old senator who sported a navy-blue striped polo and chinos. He periodically ran his hands through his coiffed silver hair.
At the Rensselaer Train Station, Bruno talked up a 10 year-old named Darryle Perry, who was waiting by himself for his father. Bruno waited with the boy after telling him he'd stay until his dad came. When his mother and sister walked up, Bruno bought ice cream for the family and his staff. He bought one for himself as well, and proceeded to eat it through a television interview, gesticulating with the cone as chocolate ice cream dripped on his hands and arms.
Preparing for another interview, Bruno asked the guys around him, half-joking, half-fishing, "How's my hair? How's my hair?" Then with a grin, he quipped to a balding companion, "better than yours."
At the Colonie airport, the final stop on the tour, a well-wisher asked Bruno whether he's going to enjoy retirement. Bruno paused for a beat.
He said he would miss the trappings of public service - the entourage, the media scrum, talking with citizens. "It's a whole way of life," he said.
"My family asks me, 'How are you going to feel? Not being senator anymore? I don't know. We'll find out."
Back on the bus, returning the Capitol, Bruno took up the intercom microphone again. "Don't try to keep track of what I'm doing from here on out. Just forget it," he joked.
Bruno said he hasn't made any decisions about what he'll do next, but he hopes to make a decision by Monday. The shadow of an FBI investigation of his business dealings still hangs over Bruno, but he said it doesn't affect his life, except in the news media.
Throughout the day, Bruno asked people whether they will know his name after midnight. Though asked as a joke, there was a hint of sadness around the edge of the words. He even said it to Gov. David Paterson, who called him on the bus to wish him well.
"I'm going to call you next week and quiz you," Bruno said. "To see if you remember who Joe Bruno is."