Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday quickly backed off a public barb she tossed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his crime-fighting strategy, marking the second time in a little more than three months she has toned down off-the-cuff remarks.
This time, the first-term Democrat retreated after saying the mayor and his hand-picked police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, were too focused on arrests as a solution to rising violence and not enough on improving a "miserable" public school system and beefing up youth programs.
"Clearly this mayor and this police chief have decided the way in which they are going to deal with the terrible violence that faces our community is just arrest everybody," Preckwinkle said during a question-and-answer session after delivering a Union League Club luncheon speech on her second anniversary in office. "I don't think in the long term that's going to be successful.
"We're going to have to figure out how to have interventions that are more comprehensive than just police interventions in the communities where we have the highest rates of crime. And they're almost all in African-American and Latino communities."
When Preckwinkle faced reporters minutes later, she said Emanuel is working to improve schools and youth programs. She added that her criticism of the public schools controlled by Emanuel was aimed at society as a whole and not the mayor personally.
The Emanuel flap follows Preckwinkle's remarks about former President Ronald Reagan. In late August, the blunt-talking Preckwinkle took aim at Reagan's legacy. Later she said she regretted saying he deserved "a special place in hell" for his role in the war on drugs.
At the luncheon Thursday, Preckwinkle was asked what she could do to address city violence, which has drawn national attention this year with a spike in the city's murder rate and brazen incidents like the fatal shooting of a young man at a funeral for a reputed gang member.
Preckwinkle said much of the problem results from a Chicago school system with a low high school graduation rate.
"We have contented ourselves with a miserable education system that has failed many of our children," Preckwinkle said, adding that more after-school enrichment and job-training programs were needed. "I'm talking about the kids who don't graduate, let alone the kids who graduate (who) don't get a very good education, even with a high school diploma."
Emanuel aides offered a restrained response.
"Mayor Emanuel strenuously agrees that a holistic approach is necessary to successfully address crime," Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said in a statement. "His multipart strategy ranges from improving early childhood education, providing a longer school day and creating re-engagement centers for youth, to delivering wraparound services, revitalizing the community policing program and working to prevent retaliatory actions by gangs.
"All of these work in tandem, but let's make no mistake, criminals deserve to be arrested," Hamilton wrote.
Emanuel and McCarthy have directed additional police resources into troubled South Side and West Side neighborhoods, combined with additional social services and community-building efforts. Emanuel also dedicated $9 million in additional funding next year for early childhood education, after-school programs and jobs, children's eye exams and programs that address domestic violence.
Reminded of those initiatives, Preckwinkle acknowledged that Emanuel is putting more city money into such programs, some of which are coordinated with the county. She said her criticism of schools wasn't directed at Emanuel, who appoints the Chicago Public Schools board and picks the system's CEO.
"This was a critique of all of us. It wasn't aimed at the mayor," said Preckwinkle, a former CPS high school history teacher.
The point, Preckwinkle said, is that education over the long run will do more to quell violence than arresting people and locking them up.
"You know unfortunately we live in a country in which we are much more willing to spend money on keeping people in prison than we are on educating them in our public schools," she said. "And that's disgraceful. It reflects badly on all of us."
She added, "I don't think we are going to arrest our way out of our violence problems."
Preckwinkle has frequently criticized a justice system that she says locks up African-American and Latino men in far greater numbers than their white counterparts, particularly for drug crimes, when studies show drugs are used in equal numbers across ethnic and racial boundaries.