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. She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995, and was succeeded in office by Barack Obama.
Prior to her time in the state legislature, Palmer was executive director of Chicago Cities in Schools program and founding director of the Chicago Metropolitan YMCA Youth and Government Program.
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 dropped out for an extended period. She returned to college and received a B.S. in English and sociology from Indiana University in 1965.
Palmer began her teaching career in Indianapolis then moved to Chicago to teach at Malcolm X College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. She earned an M.A. in urban studies from Roosevelt University, and a Ph.D. in educational administration from Northwestern University. While working on her degree at Northwestern, 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.
She became involved in a national voter education movement, then founded the Chicago YMCA Youth and Government Program in 1986. In addition, she was executive director of Chicago Cities in Schools. In the late 1980s, she was on the board of the Chicago Committee in Solidarity with Southern Africa, an anti-apartheid group.
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. She successfully ran for election in 1992 and served a four-year term that ended on January 8, 1997.
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, rising to vice chairperson of Commerce and Economic Development. 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.
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. Shortly afterward, Barack Obama, who had never held political office to-date, launched his campaign committee for Palmer's Illinois State Senate seat.
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.
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. According to The New Yorker, Palmer's endorsement "brought with it two organizational assets: local operators and local activists".
On November 28, 1995, after finishing a distant third behind Jesse Jackson, Jr. in the primary to replace Reynolds, a disappointed Palmer remarked that she still would not seek re-election to the state senate. However, Palmer changed her mind and filed nominating petitions with 1,580 signatures on December 18, 1995—the last day for filing. That day Obama told the Chicago Tribune, "I am disappointed that she's decided to go back on her word to me".
In early January 1996, Obama challenged Palmer's hastily gathered petitions and those of the three other prospective Democratic candidates. 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. 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. In a 2007 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Obama said that the challenges were justified by obvious flaws in the signature sheets.
After leaving public office, Palmer became an Associate Professor in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and she was a special assistant to the president of the university before retiring.
Palmer endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. She was reportedly a key supporter of Danny Davis in his 2011 run for mayor of Chicago against Rahm Emanuel.