Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is backtracking from comments she made about former President Ronald Reagan at a downstate function Tuesday.
Preckwinkle is in hot water with GOP officials after saying that Reagan deserves "a special place in hell" for his part in politicizing and criminalizing drug addiction.
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"I regret my earlier comment regarding former President Ronald Reagan," Preckwinkle said in a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon. "I have been outspoken on the failure of the war on drugs to end illegal drug use or sales in this country. However, this is too complicated to lay all of it on President Reagan's doorstep and inflammatory language only distracts from the larger issue."
Preckwinkle made the statement at a conference Tuesday at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs in downstate Urbana.
"It's ridiculous," Pat Brady, chairman of the state GOP, said about Preckwinkle's remark at the conference. "It's an irresponsible comment and it was completely inappropriate in that setting."
The conference was hosted by former Republican Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and was part of an ongoing series of gatherings featuring bipartisan panels.
Reagan, an Illinois native, died in 2004 at age 93 after years of battling Alzheimer's disease.
Cook County Board Commissioner Timothy Schneider of Bartlett, one of the board's few Republicans, said Preckwinkle's comments were "a really unfortunate choice of words."
"I think she should have the opportunity to explain what she said," he said. "She's not generally the type of person that likes to make partisan or inflammatory remarks about anyone."
Preckwinkle's statement was met with gasps, according to media reports.
David From, state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, also criticized Preckwinkle for wishing "eternal damnation" on "an American hero."
"President Preckwinkle's comments about a favorite son of Illinois are beyond bad taste," he said.
Brady criticized Preckwinkle's stance on drug laws, considering Chicago's infamously growing homicide rate.
"This comes at a time when the city has a 40 percent increase in homicides that are directly attributed to the drug trade," he argued. "If that's her position, I think it's unfortunate."
Preckwinkle has long advocated softening certain drug laws and has defended moves by Chicago to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
"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 continued in her apology statement. "I see every day the effects of criminalizing drug use as opposed to treating it as a public health issue."