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Preckwinkle: Sorry for Reagan ‘special place in hell’ remark

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

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Updated: September 23, 2012 6:21AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle tried to make a strong point Tuesday when she said the late President Ronald Reagan deserved a “special place in hell” for furthering the war on drugs.

Hours later, she made an apology.

“I regret my earlier comment regarding former President Ronald Reagan. I have been outspoken on the failure of the war on drugs to end illegal drug use or sales in this country,” Preckwinkle said in a written statement. “However, this is too complicated to lay all of it out on President Reagan’s doorstep, and inflammatory language only distracts from the larger issue. Drugs, and the failed war on drugs have devastated lives, families and communities. For too long we’ve treated drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health issue, which is what it is.”

Preckwinkle, appearing as a guest speaker at a leadership conference hosted Tuesday at the University of Illinois by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, made her statements during a question-and-answer session following a short speech to about 40 attendees.

During her remarks, Preckwinkle talked about efforts in Cook County to decriminalize marijuana possession and turn it into a ticket-worthy offense as part of an effort to clear the county and state’s clogged penal systems of low-level drug offenders.

Preckwinkle got herself into hot water when state Rep. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) challenged the county’s policy by asserting that addicted drug users are more likely to get treatment through the criminal courts as opposed to when they simply have to pay a small fine for low-level possession.

From there, the former high school history teacher brought up Reagan’s legacy-building, drug-prevention efforts and criticized them for subjecting low-level offenders to jail time.

That’s when she said Reagan deserved “a special place in hell,” a comment that produced a discernible gasp among conferees, according to some in attendance.

She then, jokingly, said, “What, you didn’t like that?” the witnesses said.

Rose declined comment about her remarks or his exchange with Preckwinkle during what had been billed to attendees as an “off-the-record” discussion, though media representatives from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and WBBM-TV were not told about those ground rules.

Preckwinkle offered no excuses. She later told the Sun-Times, “It was a conference and wasn’t supposed to be a media event, but when you speak in front of reporters, it is a media event.”

After the speech, Rose and Preckwinkle huddled for a while in the room where she spoke, and the two broke with a handshake and no signs of any ill will.

Preckwinkle said she won’t stop talking about the negative effects of incarcerating people for low-level drug offenses and pushing for considering drug use a public health problem instead of a criminal justice issue.

“I don’t think anyone can argue that the war on drugs has been disproportionately impactful in the African-American and Latino community if you look who is arrested and who go to jail,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times. “I will continue to speak out on this issue. If we want smarter government, it’s important we look at areas we have tremendous expenditures ... and in Cook County, that means being smarter about crime, focusing on violent offenders and trying to provide alternatives to detention.”

Republican Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider said, “I believe it was unfortunate use of words to describe one of our most revered individuals in the last half century, but I don’t think she meant what she said. I’m not making excuses for anybody, but Mitt Romney made gaffes. Joe Biden made gaffes. If someone says something that they don’t mean. I think that apology should be taken and we should move on and try to work together.”

Preckwinkle has been an advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana, spearheading a county board push in September 2011 to make it a ticket-worthy offense in unincorporated areas patrolled by the Cook County sheriff’s police.

In June, she heaped praise on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to support the same standard within the city’s boundaries in a move she then said “will help reduce the jail population, save money for taxpayers and eliminate criminal justice disparities.”

Preckwinkle shrugged off suggestions that her comments about Reagan might have a negative impact on her chances of seeking statewide office in the future.

“I have a job as president of the Cook County Board, and I intend to run for re-election as I’ve always said,” Preckwinkle said.

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