Eight wild weeks into her job as executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, after her eighth trip to Albany to sweet-talk, or agitate, the Legislature on behalf of the cash-deprived New York City school system, the Hon. Geri D. Palast as her business cards identify her returned to her still undecorated Midtown office a satiated mover and shaker of public policy. Almost.
She is gratified that the legislative leaders agreed on just over $11 billion for school construction, after being nudged along by last week's appellate court ruling in favor of her group's long-running lawsuit against the state. But she is annoyed that the state continues to shortchange the city by roughly $5 billion in owed operating funds, as suggested by that same ruling. So Ms. Palast's glass is half-empty.
"Although I'm new to Albany, I lobbied for 25 years in Congress," she says; her three bulging Rolodexes are proof of that. "This battle is definitely to be continued," she vows, ignoring both her warbling cell phone and incoming e-mail messages. "It will be wonderful to have new school buildings, but it's only half a solution. We did not get our court-ordered sound basic education appropriation for this year. We had a legal strategy, and what we need now is a political and organizational strategy to put this phase out of business, close out the litigation, and get the money the state owes us."
Does this mean the Pataki administration will be hearing from her again? Affirmative. Back in court, if necessary.
Though Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who "dismayed" Ms. Palast and her colleagues by putting the weight of his administration behind securing construction funds, seems mollified by that windfall, Ms. Palast is not. She and her coalition of parents and community groups want to see more teachers and new curriculum options in the schools. "So long as we are in the public debate, we are alive and kicking. This may be a one-time infusion of money, but it is not a one-time issue. We need City Hall's help with the second push."
A defiantly tiny lady (no delusional high heels during business hours; she saves those for the amateur cabaret circuit) partial to statement-making costume jewelry (today it's pearls), Ms. Palast is 55 and tart about owning up to it. She is childless by choice and circumstance, but has a niece and nephew in the city's public schools. Marriage was not in the cards. Still isn't, despite a seven-year relationship that is now long-distance because of her decision to lead the education group to "the finish line" after its 13 years of litigation.
Just one more fact of life, like the fact that her oft-uprooted office plants are dying of neglect in the single sunny corner of her corner office. Blame her. Since starting in January, she's been too busy even to unpack the poster of Frances Perkins, the labor secretary and Social Security proponent under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which followed her to New York from Washington, where the Senate confirmed her in 1993 as an assistant secretary of labor, hence the "honorable" honorific on her résumé and business cards.
"She's my heroine," says Ms. Palast, who grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents belonged to trade unions and were "actively progressive Democrats." Ms. Palast remembers distributing leaflets outside grocery stores during the grape boycott to support farm workers and going door-to-door with campaign literature for Adlai E. Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Her father was a salesman; her mother worked odd jobs and wound up a teacher at age 50. She taught until she was 80. Her parents were also accomplished ballroom dancers, the likely source of Ms. Palast's prowess in competitive swing-dancing.
HER childhood ambition was to get into progressive politics or perform on Broadway; after law school at Stanford, policy-making won. But she continues to moonlight as a performer; she recently belted out "Hard Hearted Hannah" in her New York cabaret debut at Don't Tell Mama, and takes classes at the Cabaret Performance Workshop. That blurry photograph on her bulletin board of Woody Allen in jazz clarinet mode was snapped with her cellphone one evening at the Carlyle. Ms. Palast has her cultural heroes, too. Nothing wrong with leading two lives. Or living in two places; she stays with a friend in New York and has an apartment, jazzily furnished in Art Deco, in Washington.
"But my driving force is to be part of the movement of progressive political and social policy," she says, nimbly summing herself up. "Working on behalf of working women is my cause célèbre in general. And being one of the foremothers, as we called ourselves, of the Family Medical Leave Act, the first bill signed into law by the Clinton administration in 1993, is my claim to fame in life," she says of a project she undertook while she was the political and legislative director of the Service Employees International Union. "It took us nine years to pass that bill, and as you can tell, I'm still proud of it."
She is clearly undecided on whether to bask in the fiscal afterglow of the $11.2 billion earmarked for school construction or fume about what's missing: a court-ordered $4.7 billion to $5.6 billion in operating money over the next four years. Somehow she's managing to smile and grit her teeth simultaneously. It suits her.