AUGUSTA – Outspoken and blunt, House Minority Leader Joe Bruno heads the most underdog caucus in the Legislature. Naturally, he’d like to change that.
But Republicans have effectively languished in minority status in the Maine House of Representatives for going on three decades.
So Bruno’s immediate job, he says, is to lead his colleagues in developing a principled GOP opposition to the ascendant Democrats who now hold the upper hand in both the House and Senate and also hold the Blaine House.
“In five terms, always being in the minority is not what anybody would sign up for,” Bruno said in a recent early morning interview in his State House office. “But you have to offer the other side.”
Bruno’s standard message is standard Republicanism: smaller government and lower taxes, greater government efficiency and better business climate.
This year, he says, that philosophy will be showcased and tested anew as new Gov. John Baldacci and the Legislature grapple with formidable fiscal challenges.
For now, Bruno professes optimism about the opportunity for House Republicans to have a say and make a difference.
Given Baldacci’s expressed commitment to do without a tax increase, “I think we’re going to be allies,” Bruno says.
“And the fact of the matter is,” Bruno adds, “we have to work together to solve a billion-dollar problem.”
Suggesting that moderation on all sides can produce compromise, Bruno says, “the State House has always worked toward the middle and the solutions have always come from the middle.”
Kay Rand, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Angus King, jokes that Bruno is usually ready to look for solutions, “when he’s not on the golf course.”
Joking aside, Rand looks back on the independent King administration’s dealings with Bruno as minority leader and gives him high marks on several counts.
“He can be grouchy, but Bruno, more than anything, he’s a problem solver,” Rand says. “If you present him with the right set of facts, he’ll abandon ideology more readily than others.”
A player with a temper, Bruno is also dependably honest, according to Rand.
“My whole life, I’ve been pretty straightforward,” Bruno says. “I don’t beat around the bush.”
Bruno, a 47-year-old pharmacist and businessman who lives in Raymond, grew up in Hicksville, N.Y., a place he says is better known as the home of musician Billy Joel and actress Lorraine Bracco.
The son of Italian immigrants, Bruno came to Maine in 1978 after finishing college. He first settled in Washburn in Aroostook County, where he met his wife, Suzanne. The Brunos have two daughters.
Bruno says he was attracted to Maine in large part by a desire to live in the country and to pursue his interests in hunting and fishing.
Professionally, he says he has always believed in the benefits of being a self-starter – “I started working when I was 7 years old and I haven’t stopped since.”
He suggests that outlook led to his Republican orientation, and also shaped his working style – “I’m a busy person … I don’t waste time.”
Presiding at the House Republican caucus before the full Legislature convened Thursday morning, Bruno outlined coming events that included a policy forum and raffle, and parenthetically advised members on guidelines for speaking during session on the House floor.
Of the 67 Republicans in the 151-member House, 34 were not in office last session.
“We have more new members than we have returning members,” Bruno says. “So my role is to educate people … tell them this is why we do this and this is why we don’t.”
At the morning caucus, Bruno leads a preliminary discussion of what lawmakers can expect in the first piece of budget legislation from Baldacci – a package designed to offset a $44 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
While moderating the discussion, Bruno signals that he’s ready to get down to business legislatively.
“The new governor usually gets a honeymoon period coming in,” he tells his Republican colleagues. “Well, I think that’s kind of ended.”