A onetime foe joins the Malloy administration

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s choice of Sharon M. Palmer as his next labor commissioner helps heal political wounds with organized labor by his public embrace of Palmer, the blunt and irreverent union president who fought him over education reform.

Labor leaders, administration officials and legislative staff applauded Palmer as she glided into a press conference Tuesday afternoon behind Malloy on a motorized scooter she uses to spare her ailing knees.

Palmer Malloy

Sharon Palmer with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

“It certainly wasn’t something I expected or thought I’d be undertaking at this stage of my life, but it is a wonderful challenge and a wonderful opportunity,” said Palmer, the 68-year-old state president of the American Federation of Teachers.

She did not apply for the job that became vacant in July after the abrupt resignation of Glenn Marshall. Once Malloy’s staff suggested her name as a possibility, the governor quickly directed his chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, to gauge her interest.

Democratic political operatives called the appointment politically astute: Palmer is a popular figure in organized labor, holding a senior post in the state AFL-CIO, and her choice could help ease lingering anger from unionized teachers before the election.

Malloy acknowledged the obvious political questions arising from his recruitment of a union leader who publicly and privately opposed elements of his reform package at key junctures earlier this year, but he tried to deflect them with a one-liner that drew laughter from Palmer and the audience:

“Oh, hell, I bang heads with everybody.”

The governor said his relationship with Palmer predates the fight over education reforms, which resulted in the passage of a compromise bill largely applauded by labor and reform advocates.

“More often than not, we’ve been in agreement,” he said.

“The governor and I have a healthy respect for one another, and that was gained working our way through all the aspects of the education reforms through the last session,” Palmer said. “At one point, we had a conversation where I said to the governor, ‘Governor, if we are able to work this out, you’ll have my respect, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always agree with you.’ “

Palmer, the president of the AFT since 2003, was seen as less combative than the leadership of the state’s larger teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association, but she was direct in her criticism of Malloy’s decision to emphasize tenure as he proposed his education reforms, saying the governor needlessly antagonized teachers.

“Today tenure is too easy to get and too hard to take away,” Malloy said in his address to legislators on the opening day of the 2012 session of the General Assembly.

As much as any substantive proposal, that line colored his dealings with teachers.

“We stumbled out of the gate. I take full responsibility,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the senior adviser who wrote the speech. But he added that Palmer kept lines of communication open: “She was always willing to sit down. She knew reform was going to happen.”

Occhiogrosso said Palmer always has displayed an ability to be pragmatic without sacrificing principle.

“If you know me, you know that I am a coalition builder and a collaborator,” Palmer said during the press conference. “And I will continue to work in that manner to accomplish goals for the people who brought me here today.”

Palmer Ojakian

Palmer is congratulated by Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff.

Palmer stood next to Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman as the governor announced her appointment, supported by a cane. She eventually sat as the press conference continued.

Asked later about her health, she smiled and said, “Good, except I’m fat, and my knees are shot.”

Wyman, who overheard her answer, suggested that the remark was off the record.

Palmer shrugged and said, “It’s the truth.”

Palmer, who is married and lives in Waterford, begins the new job on Oct. 5. She will be paid $148,000.

Among those applauding her appointment was Stefan Pryor, the commissioner of education who negotiated with her and other union leaders over a package of reforms that initially enraged unionized teachers.

“It’s an outstanding appointment,” Pryor said, describing her as a negotiator “who created only opportunities for resolution, to bring people together. She is one of the most constructive forces in the entire state.”

He stood during the press conference near Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the Education Committee, who said Palmer always kept negotiations constructive.

Nearby was Lori J. Pelletier, the secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, who says it was Palmer who befriended her in the 1990s, encouraging her involvement in Democratic politics and her move into the leadership of the AFL-CIO.

“She’s been a mentor ever since,” Pelletier said.