— Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Tuesday said former President Ronald Reagan deserves "a special place in hell" for his role in the war on drugs, but later she regretted what she called her "inflammatory" remark.
The comment from Preckwinkle, known more for a reserved, straight-ahead political style, came at a conference led by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who's now at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Preckwinkle was defending the recent move by the city of Chicago to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana by allowing police to write tickets, saying out-of-whack drug laws unfairly lead to more minorities behind bars.
Downstate Republican state Rep. Chapin Rose of Mahomet questioned whether such an approach includes drug treatment for those who are ticketed. Preckwinkle said no, arguing that drug treatment should be part of the health care system, not criminal justice. She said Reagan deserves a "special place in hell" for his involvement in "making drug use political."
"What? You didn't like that?" Preckwinkle said after audience members gasped.
The comment about Reagan, a Republican icon born in Illinois who died in 2004, drew criticism.
"I think it was a really unfortunate choice of words to speak of one of the most revered presidents of the 20th century in that manner," said county Commissioner Timothy Schneider, R-Streamwood.
Schneider credited Preckwinkle with a bipartisan approach on the County Board but said, "Heated rhetoric like that can further divide people, as opposed to bring people together."
Hours later, Preckwinkle issued a statement saying she regretted the Reagan comment. The South Side Democrat said she was trying to make the point that substance abuse should be treated as a health crisis, not a criminal problem.
While President Richard Nixon is generally credited with starting the war on drugs, critics contend Reagan ramped up the issue for political purposes during the 1980s.
"Ronald Reagan wasn't the first or the last, but he was certainly the most prominent at the very beginning," Preckwinkle told the Tribune in a phone interview.
The resulting policies have had the effect of sending young African-Americans and Latinos to jail and prison in disproportionate numbers, she said. They also have driven up government costs and damaged communities, she said.
"Drug policy in this country has been in the wrong direction for 30 years," she said. "I think that's something they should acknowledge. If I had it to do over again, I certainly wouldn't say anything quite so inflammatory. But my position basically remains the same."
Preckwinkle was speaking at a luncheon titled "The Opportunities and Responsibilities of Public Service" on one of several panels taking place as part of the Edgar Fellows program, which aims to foster cooperation among policymakers of different parties and backgrounds.
Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed from Chicago.