Alice Palmer (politician)

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Alice Palmer
Member of the Illinois Senate
from the 13th district
In office
June 6, 1991 – January 8, 1997
Preceded byRichard H. Newhouse Jr.
Succeeded byBarack Obama
Personal details
Alice J. Roberts

(1939-06-20)June 20, 1939
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
DiedMay 25, 2023(2023-05-25) (aged 83)
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseEdward Palmer[1]
EducationIndiana University (BS)
Roosevelt University (MA)
Northwestern University (PhD)
OccupationEducator, politician

Alice J. Palmer (née Roberts, June 20, 1939 – May 25, 2023) was an American educator and politician who served as a member of the Illinois Senate.[1] Known as a longtime progressive activist, Palmer represented the state's 13th Senate District from June 6, 1991, until January 8, 1997.[2] At the time, the district spanned an economically diverse area and included the Chicago communities of Hyde Park, South Shore and Englewood.[2]

First appointed to fill the vacant seat of retired state senator Richard H. Newhouse, Jr., Palmer successfully ran for election in 1992 and served a four-year term that ended on January 8, 1997.[3][4] She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995, and was disqualified from running in the Democratic primary for her Illinois Senate seat by Barack Obama, who was running against her and successfully challenged her petition signatures. Obama succeeded her in office.

Early life and education[edit]

Palmer was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Erskine and Mary Ward Roberts. She graduated from high school at age 16, enrolled at Indiana University, but left school for an extended period.[5] She returned to college and received a B.S. in English and sociology from Indiana University in 1965. She earned an M.A. in urban studies from Roosevelt University, and a Ph.D. in educational administration from Northwestern University.


Palmer began her teaching career in Indianapolis then moved to Chicago to teach at Malcolm X College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.[5] While working on her degree at Northwestern University, Palmer co-authored two books and tutored. She then took a position at Northwestern as Associate Dean and Director of African American Student Affairs for five years.[5]

Palmer became involved in a national voter education movement, then founded the Chicago YMCA Youth and Government Program in 1986.[5] In addition, she was executive director of Chicago Cities in Schools.[5] In the late-1980s, she was on the board of the Chicago Committee in Solidarity with Southern Africa, an anti-apartheid group.[6]

Illinois Senate[edit]

Palmer was appointed to the Illinois State Senate in June 1991 to fill the remainder of the term of longtime State Senator Richard J. Newhouse, Jr., who had retired.[3] She successfully ran for election in 1992 and served a four-year term that ended on January 8, 1997.[3][4]

While in the Illinois State Senate, Palmer initially served on the committees for Appropriations, Commerce and Economic Development, Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education,[1] rising to vice chairperson of Commerce and Economic Development.[4] Later in her tenure, she served on the State Government Operations- and the Economic and Fiscal Commissions, and was a member of the Legislative Bureau and the Legislative Information Systems committee.[7]

1995 U.S. House campaign[edit]

In July 1995, seven months after launching an exploratory fundraising committee for a U.S. congressional run, Palmer announced she would run to replace U.S. Representative Mel Reynolds who was then under indictment for sex crimes. She also said that she would not seek reelection to the Illinois State Senate in 1996.[8][9][10] Shortly afterward, Barack Obama, who had never held political office to-date, launched his campaign committee for Palmer's Illinois State Senate seat.[10]

Following Reynolds' conviction and resignation from the U.S. House in August 1995, a special election primary was set for November 1995 to replace Reynolds. In September 1995, Palmer supporters held a press conference asking other announced and rumored candidates to drop out to allow Palmer to run in the special primary without opposition.[11]

On September 19, 1995, Barack Obama formally announced his candidacy for the state senate, with Palmer introducing and endorsing Obama as her successor, according to multiple accounts.[2][12] According to The New Yorker, Palmer's endorsement "brought with it two organizational assets: local operators and local activists".[13]

On November 28, 1995, after finishing a distant third behind Jesse Jackson, Jr. in the primary to replace Reynolds, Palmer remarked that she still would not seek re-election to the state senate.[14] However, Palmer changed her mind and filed nominating petitions with 1,580 signatures on December 18, 1995, the last day for filing.[15] That day, Obama told the Chicago Tribune, "I am disappointed that she's decided to go back on her word to me."[2]

In early January 1996, Obama challenged Palmer's petitions and those of the three other prospective Democratic candidates.[13] Nearly two-thirds of the signatures on Palmer's petitions were found to be invalid, leaving her almost 200 signatures short of the required 757 signatures of registered voters residing in the Illinois Senate district.

None of the other three prospective candidates had the required number of valid signatures. As a result, Obama, who had filed nominating petitions with over 3,000 signatures on the first filing day, appeared alone on the ballot for the March 16 Democratic primary.[2][15] For all intents and purposes, this assured him of election in this heavily Democratic district. He easily defeated the Republican and Harold Washington Party candidates in the November general election.[2][16] In a 2007 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Obama said that the challenges were justified by obvious flaws in the signature sheets.[2]

Later career[edit]

After leaving public office, Palmer became an associate professor in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she was a special assistant to the president of the university before retiring.[5][2]

Palmer endorsed Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries.[17][18] She was reportedly a key supporter of Danny Davis in his 2011 run for mayor of Chicago against Rahm Emanuel.[19]


Palmer died on May 25, 2023, at the age of 83.[20]


  1. ^ a b c Illinois Blue Book, 1991-1992, page 80.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Jackson, David; Long, Ray (April 3, 2007). "Obama knows his way around a ballot". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c Madhani, Aamer (May 2, 2002). "Richard Newhouse Jr., 78". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c Illinois Blue Book, 1993-1994, pages 55, 78.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Alice Palmer biography". The HistoryMakers. August 9, 2000. Archived from the original on April 29, 2011. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  6. ^ Rubin, Rachel (Fall 1989). "Defiance campaign takes anti-apartheid action to a new level" (PDF). Chicago Committee in Solidarity with Southern Africa (CCISSA) Briefing. East Lansing, Mich.: Historical Voices, Matrix, Center for the Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online, Michigan State University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-11-06. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  7. ^ Illinois Blue Book, 1995-1996, page 78.
  8. ^ Kuczka, Susan (November 22, 1994). "State Sen. Palmer ponders a bid for Reynolds' 2nd district post". Chicago Tribune. p. 2. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
    Neal, Steve (November 25, 1994). "Palmer beats Jackson Jr. to punch". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 49. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  9. ^ Hardy, Thomas (June 28, 1995). "Palmer seeks to replace Reynolds; 'Pray for him, vote for me,' legislator says". Chicago Tribune. p. 3. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  10. ^ a b Knapp, Kevin (July 5, 1995). "Alice Palmer to run for Reynolds' seat". Hyde Park Herald. p. 1. Archived from the original on 2012-04-22. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
    Hevrdejs, Judy; Conklin, Mike (July 7, 1995). "Something different, Democrats don't add a Senate candidate". Chicago Tribune. p. 20. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  11. ^ Fornek, Scott (September 15, 1995). "Sen. Jones is joining the pack; Will bid for Reynolds' House seat". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 6. Retrieved November 4, 2004.
  12. ^ Strausberg, Chinta (September 19, 1995). "Harvard lawyer eyes Palmer seat". Chicago Defender. p. 3.
    Mitchell, Monica (October 4, 1995). "Hyde Parker announces run for state senate seat". Hyde Park Herald. p. 3. Archived from the original on 2012-04-22. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
    Fornek, Scott (October 29, 1995). "Foot soldiers for the '96 elections". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 14. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  13. ^ a b Lizza, Ryan (July 21, 2008). "Making it; how Chicago shaped Obama". The New Yorker. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  14. ^ Hardy, Thomas; Rubin, Bonnie Miller (November 29, 1995). "Jesse Jackson Jr. rolls over veteran opponents; Somer wins GOP primary". Chicago Tribune. p. 1 (Metro). Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  15. ^ a b Strausberg, Chinta (December 5, 1995). "Draft Palmer campaign launched". Chicago Defender. p. 4. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and who has lived in Hyde Park for a decade, said he's meeting with Palmer today over the issue and is planning on filing more than 3,000 petitions Monday in Springfield.
    De Zutter, Hank (December 8, 1995). "What makes Obama run?". Chicago Reader. pp. 1, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
    Knapp, Kevin (December 13, 1995). "Palmer may re-enter state Senate race". Hyde Park Herald. p. 1. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
    Hardy, Thomas (December 19, 1995). "Jackson foe now wants old job back; Palmer must now battle own endorsee". Chicago Tribune. p. 3 (Metro). Retrieved January 21, 2009.
    Strausberg, Chinta (December 19, 1995). "Palmer OKs draft to run for re-election". Chicago Defender. p. 3.
    "State Senator Alice J. Palmer announces run for re-election" (PDF). South Street Journal. December 19, 1995. p. 9. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
    Knapp, Kevin (December 20, 1995). "Palmer caught in campaign draft". Hyde Park Herald. p. 1. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
    Knapp, Kevin (December 20, 1995). "Candidates file petitions for local political offices". Hyde Park Herald. p. 2. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
    Strausberg, Chinta (December 21, 1995). "Palmer challenger says he won't step aside in race". Chicago Defender. p. 3.
    Hevrdejs, Judy; Conklin, Mike (December 25, 1995). "Hevrdejs & Conklin INC". Chicago Tribune. p. 2. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
    Walls, Sunya (December 25, 1995). "Alice Palmer decides to run for re-election". Chicago Weekend. p. 2.
    Knapp, Kevin (December 13, 1995). "List of next year's candidates is sparse". Hyde Park Herald. p. 1. Retrieved June 2, 2012.
    Knapp, Kevin (January 24, 1996). "Final primary ballot takes shape". Hyde Park Herald. p. 1. Retrieved June 2, 2012.
  16. ^ "Two candidates to challenge Obama for state senate seat". Hyde Park Herald. September 25, 1996. p. 2. Retrieved June 2, 2012.
    Knapp, Kevin (November 13, 1996). "Election holds no surprises for local candidates". Hyde Park Herald. p. 2. Retrieved June 2, 2012.
    Chicago Democracy Project (2005). "Election results for 1996 general election, Illinois Senate, District 13". Chicago Democracy Project. Retrieved June 2, 2012.
  17. ^ Felsenthal, Carol (July 1, 2008). "Barack Obambi? Not quite; just ask Alice Palmer". Huffington Post. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  18. ^ Parsons, Christi (April 26, 2008). "Once Obama's mentor, Alice Palmer now campaigns for Clinton". Top of the Ticket blog. Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 30 April 2008. Retrieved May 25, 2008.
  19. ^ Shiner, Meredith (December 31, 2010). "Obama unlikely to campaign for Rahm". Politico. Archived from the original on 2011-01-05. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  20. ^ "Activist, former Illinois State Sen. Alice Palmer dies at 83". CBS News Chicago. 20 May 2023. Retrieved 31 May 2023.
Illinois Senate
Preceded by Illinois State Senator from 13th district
June 6, 1991 – January 8, 1997
Succeeded by