Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday named state teachers’ union President Sharon Palmer, a resident of Waterford, as the next commissioner of the state Department of Labor.
Palmer, 68, will step down from Connecticut’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers for the commissioner job, which starts Oct. 5.
She has been president of AFT Connecticut — the second-largest teachers’ union in the state with 28,000 members — since 2003.
Earlier this year, Palmer and other union leaders sparred with the Malloy administration during negotiations over the governor’s package of education reform proposals. One sticking point was Malloy’s call for a far-reaching overhaul to public school teacher tenure.
The governor had threatened to veto the entire package if its tenure changes were too watered down.
The unions, state lawmakers and the administration eventually agreed this spring on a compromise version of the bill that kept teacher tenure in Connecticut but requires teachers to continually demonstrate “effective practice” to keep their jobs.
“During the education reform debate last session, one of the strongest advocates in the effort to fix what’s broken in our public schools was Sharon Palmer,” Malloy said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “While we may not have agreed on every aspect of the proposal, we always agreed that change was not just inevitable, but necessary. And the final product that I signed into law is a better bill because of Sharon’s input.”
She succeeds Glenn Marshall, a former carpenters’ union president who abruptly resigned in July for “personal reasons.”
In an interview Tuesday, Palmer said she was recruited for the commissioner’s job by Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff.
“I think I can do some good, bringing my background in education and blending that with training and job creation, along with all the other functions of the department,” she said.
Palmer said there are no lingering bad feelings over the education bill’s early controversies.
“You have to look at the outcome, and the outcome was a bill that was voted unanimously in the House,” she said. “We did have some disagreements over what good public policy should be, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Palmer has a few ideas for the labor department but said she will first open a dialogue with the department’s 700 workers. “I tend to be a collaborator and a consensus builder,” she said.
She will serve on an interim basis until next year’s General Assembly session, as her nomination is subject to legislative approval. Her annual salary will be $148,000.
State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said Malloy made a great choice in Palmer.
“It’s not an easy agency to oversee because of the complexities of labor law,” Stillman said. “And I believe that her background will be an asset.”
Palmer also has 20 years of public school teaching experience and previously taught science, math and gifted classes at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford.
She left teaching in 1989 when she became an officer with AFT Connecticut.
“I do miss working with kids, though,” said Palmer, who lives with her husband, George, in Quaker Hill. “That’s a love I still have.”
Her appointment generated some controversy Tuesday afternoon, as one blogger dug up a news story from 2004 when Palmer joined other labor leaders and “progressive activists” at a reception celebrating the 85th anniversary of the Communist Party USA. The reception was hosted by the New Haven People’s Center, which houses a regional bureau of the Communist Party’s newspaper.
Palmer acknowledged Tuesday that she attended the People’s Center event and received their “Amistad Award” for social justice but said she has no links to the Communist Party.
“I am not a member of the Communist Party, and I am not a socialist,” she said. “I am more concerned for the fight for good jobs for people.”