Updated 9:29 p.m. ET 4/24/2014
(CNN) - What started out as a standoff over land rights may be turning into a controversy over race.
Racist comments from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy - who earlier this month appeared to win a highly publicized standoff against federal authorities over his two-decade long illegal grazing of cattle on public land - are giving Democrats a new weapon to attack some top Republicans who earlier came to Bundy's defense.
Follow @LACaldwellDC Follow @KilloughCNN Follow @psteinhausercnnFollow @politicalticker
And the controversial comments also call into question moves by Fox News and some other conservative media that highlighted the story and painted Bundy as a hero in his battle against federal authorities.
Bundy, 67, won his standoff against federal rangers after armed militiamen came to his side. Even with the incident over, Bundy continued to talk to a dwindling crowd of media from his ranch, about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The comments that sparked the latest controversy came this weekend when Bundy recalled to supporters about a time he drove by a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, according to a report from The New York Times.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," Bundy said, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids - and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch - they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" Bundy continued. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
What Cliven Bundy's comments on race reveal
In a press conference Thursday, Bundy defended and repeated his comments but emphasized he was merely "wondering" whether African-Americans were better off as slaves.
"And that's a question I put before the world: Are they better, or were they better then? I'm not saying I thought they should be slaves, or I wasn't even saying they was (sic) better off; I'm wondering if they're better off," he said.
Bundy said he questions whether those living under government subsidies are living as slaves to the state, but denied he held racist views.
"I might not have a very big word base or vocabulary, I guess, but let me tell you something: When I say slavery, I mean slavery...Slavery is about when you take away choices from people, and where you have forced labor," he said. "You think that's what I'm about, America? If it is, you're sure wrong, because I don't believe in any type of that stuff."
And Bundy didn't back down in an interview Thursday night with CNN's Bill Weir. He questioned whether blacks are better off now when "they don't have nothing to do with their children, their family unit is ruined (and) I don't think they have the life that they should have."
"I don't think I'm wrong," he told CNN, insisting that he'd spoken "from my heart." "I think I'm right."
Asked whether he was any more or less a "welfare queen" as those who get entitlement checks - since his cattle have been feeding off the government, literally, by eating grass on public land - Bundy said, "I might be a welfare queen, but I'll tell you I'm producing something for America and using a resource that nobody else would use or could use."
He said, "I'm putting red meat on your table. Maybe I'm not doing enough, but I'm trying."
'Comments are completely beyond the pale'
Thursday morning, hours after The New York Times story went viral, the Nevada Democratic Party put out a statement saying "These comments are reprehensible, and every Republican politician in the state of Nevada who tried to latch on to Cliven Bundy's newfound celebrity with TEA Partiers and the militia movement should be ashamed of their actions."
"Every Republican elected official who risked inciting violence to gain political capital out of Cliven Bundy now owes the people of Nevada an apology for their irresponsible behavior of putting their own political future ahead of the safety of Nevadans," added the Nevada Democrats.
Some top national Republicans quickly condemned the remarks.
Sen. Rand Paul, who originally supported Bundy's case, issued a statement Thursday morning decrying Bundy's racial comments.
"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said the Kentucky Republican, who's seriously considering a 2016 presidential run.
GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who earlier called his supporters "patriots", also "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way," according to his spokesperson, Chandler Smith.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who had not previously weighed in on the land dispute, said in a statement that "Bundy's comments are completely beyond the pale. Both highly offensive and 100% wrong on race."
Democrats had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – Nevada's senior senator - last week blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
One man, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack told a reporter the militia were considering putting "all the women" on the front lines.
"If they're going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers," he said.
Questions about media coverage
Some conservative-leaning pundits painted Bundy as an anti-goverment hero. Fox News' Sean Hannity was criticized by liberal media outlets for frequently hosting Bundy on his television program and appearing to defend the rancher.
Hannity said Thursday on his radio show that Bundy's "comments are beyond repugnant to me."
"They are beyond despicable to me. They are beyond ignorant to me," he said, adding that his interest in Bundy's case was entirely about government overreach.
He also chided what he called the liberal media, arguing that they ignore racist comments by Democrats and only focus on Republicans.
"Every conservative I know does not support racism, period," he said.
Another Fox News host, Greta Van Susteren, wrote on her blog Thursday morning that she condemns Bundy's comments.
Others had previously warned fellow conservatives not to get too fired up about the Nevada dispute. Conservative host Glenn Beck said on his show that "10 or 15 percent" of the people who were defending Bundy online were saying things "that are truly frightening."
"They don't care what the facts are," he said. "They just want a fight."
Tucker Carlson, founder of the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller, said on Fox that he sympathizes with the Bundys, but "it's important to point out that this land does not belong to them and that's not a minor distinction, it's the essence of private property."
For his part, Sen. Paul had also cautioned both sides, including Reid, to calm their rhetoric.
"Let's try to have a peaceful resolution to this," he said last week on Fox News.
While Republicans are now trying to distance themselves from Bundy, that's not stopping Democrats from going after them for supporting Bundy in the first place. And the Democratic National Committee says the incident is "more evidence of the shallowness of the GOP's outreach efforts."
"Remember Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson? His racist comments last December were in the same vein as Bundy's. Yet GOP leaders from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Lindsey Graham, and others rushed to defend (Robertson's) comments against a liberal assault. Republicans even invited the Duck Dynasty stars as their guests to the State of the Union!," wrote DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee.
"And therein lies the GOP's problem. If you ever want to be taken seriously for your outreach efforts, you might want to start by not defending racists," Elleithee added.
Battle over land rights
The Bundy standoff is emblematic of the larger anti-government sentiment around the country that has been amplified with the creation of the tea party movement in 2009. But the latest move in a two-decade-long tug of war between Bundy and the federal government is bringing to light the delicate balance that has lasted between citizens in the West and the federal government over the use of federally owned land for generations.
What made Nevada rancher fight the feds?
One protester from neighboring Utah, Stephen L. Dean, 45, called the Bureau of Land Management's actions "tyranny in government." And a banner at the protest site blared: "Has the West been won? Or has the fight just begun!"
In the western states, public lands are a big deal. Almost everyone uses them or depends on them. They are key to people's recreational hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing. And they are critical to people's livelihood, as they are used to cut timber, drill oil, mine coal and ranch cattle.
Vast swaths of the land in the West are predominately public. In Nevada, for example, 87% of the state is owned by the federal government, and the Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million acres of public lands mostly west of the Mississippi River, not including the lands overseen by the National Forest Service and half a dozen other federal agencies.
In Nevada, ranchers depend on the federal lands for their livelihood. The government began allowing the use of the land in 1877 to promote the economic development of dry, difficult-to-cultivate desert areas. So it offered land for dirt cheap. Bundy says his family has owned the ranch since about the time the Desert Land Act passed.
A version of the law still exists today, allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public lands for a nominal rate. The fee is cheaper than what the rancher would pay the state or a private land owner, but the tradeoff is that the rancher has to share the land with the public.
After the desert tortoise became a protected species in 1993, the Bureau of Land Management rebuked or phased out the permits of ranchers in the designated area in southern Nevada.
Bundy is the last remaining rancher, refusing to leave and refusing to pay more than $1 million worth of fines. Bundy lost all efforts at appeal and litigation. In an effort to enforce the law, the BLM attempted to round up Bundy's cattle and was met with a clan of armed defenders, leading to the current stalemate between the government and Bundy.
The Nevada Democrat had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Last week the state's senior senator blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
They all jumped on board to rally the extremist.... they will the extremist nut-head they were defending shows his true colors they abandon ship... get a clue why the Republicans can't win a national ticket.
So they're all for Bundy being a welfare rancher and cheating the system. But the moment he says something racist they're abhor that? Where are the priorities in this country?
just another racist teabagger
The guy spoke the truth as he see it. Same for the guy on Duck Dynasty. It may not be politically correct, but liberals have some strange opinions too. Thankfully it's the undecided 6% that decide elections, and not the extremists on either side.
Well this comes as a complete shock! A conservative gun nut tax cheat who's also a racist. That's a surprise! *rolls eyes*
Bundy (wonder if he's related to dead Ted?) needs to get his cattle off my–and your–land. We own it, and he hasn't paid us a red cent for using it. He owes over a million dollars in fines for failure to pay the nominal fees we charged him for making money by grazing his cattle on public land. Bundy is no hero; he's just a dead-beat businessman making money at our expense. We need to evict him. For the most part, there's no love lost between me and the federal government, but for once, they're in the right.
This guy is the Joe Plumber of the moment for the GOP.
Bet he uses his new found fame to run for a political position in Arizona.
He'll have to get in line behind Joe Arpiao, Steven Segal, and the rest of the AZ. GOP who wanted to enshrine the right to discriminate in AZ. laws buffoons first.
He had the game won but couldn't stop from let his true nature show through. He has the nerve to talk about people on welfare and yet has been feeding himself at the government trough for decades
He had not won the game. Unless he is raising those cows as pets, he will need to sell the somewhere . The feds will put a lien on them and take the money.
Putting women in the front of a shooting battle?
Sounds like Sadam Hussein and his "human shields."
Sounds like a bunch of cowards to me.
Thanks – I can add that to my Taliban vs. Tea Party similarity list.
The hypocrisy is unbelievable. I would venture to say 99.9% of the people who support this jerk agree with him on this issue as well. Politicians and all are just not stupid enough to say it publically. It's a mindset that is consistent across the board on these issues.
Bundy, 67, won his standoff against federal rangers after armed militiamen came to his side.
In Iraq, Afghanistan, and any other country the US sends troops into, armed militiamen are considered terrorists.
These are the comments of a very stupid elderly white bigot. It is hard to believe that there are people this stupid. Guess we will have to wait about 20 more years for all the old fools like this to die out before racial tensions will get better. Hopefully this fool wont last that long.
By the way, thank you NY Times for all your effort in vetting Cliven Bundy. Unfortunately you were hibernating in 2007-08 when it was time to vet Barack Obama. NYT isn't news, it's liberal propaganda.
Interestingly enough, Hannity called Weather Underground terrorists, which they were. But when anti goverment actions come from the right, they are freedom fighters against government tyranny. So he and his firend Limbaugh decide when it is OK to fight government.
"Get a life, Free Speech is not just the speech the liberals like but all speech."
No one is challenging his right to free speech. In fact, I hope he keeps talking. I love watching repugs backtrack and run from this guy.
Leave it to the liberal media (aka CNN) to bring race is as the issue. Race is NOT the issue here. Besides, the liberal, as usual, construed what the guy was even talking about. It was not a racist comment.
So, now the story begins to rise on the CNN headline board. It's OK now I guess that the federal government, public servants elected by the people to represent the people, can set up a bureaucracy that can seize private land and start charging people to walk on it as long as those people are racist. Got it.
The land is not private, it is federal. They charge people to use it, whether they are racist or not, is beside the point. He is using taxpayer owned land to run a for profit business without paying for it. Got it?
FREEDOM OF SPEECH..
He said what he believes.. What's wrong with that. he's NOT making any laws or establishing policies. He has his right to his opinion.. LEAVE IT BE, LIBS...
Go for it – I am starting a Liberals for Cliven Bundy for president or Tea Party spokeman or something.
Let the Man Talk. Let him talk a lot.
Meanwhile back on Earth, he is not being arrested for speaking his mind but don't let divert you from conspiracy theories.
Can't go on .... can't type while laughing......
First, his comments were nothing like Phil Robertson's. That's sensationalism. Second, just because he's a racist doesn't make him less right about the property issue. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Does that discount anything he ever did? I highly doubt that the dumbocrats would argue that the Declaration of Independence should not be supported because the words and ideas were written by a slave owner. People are multidimensional and complex. Just because they are culturally wrong in one aspect of their thinking discount everything they believe.
I beg to differ, but as usual the mouthpiece for the Dems has it wrong on what Phil Robertson said. he spoke out against the gay lifestyle..not against blacks ion America. But, being the communications director for the Democratic National Committee, it doesn't shock me that Mo Elleithee would lie outright in order to blur the distinctions...typical Democratic ploy.
"One man, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack told a reporter the militia were considering putting "all the women" on the front lines.
"If they're going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot..."
Interesting. That's what all terrorists do.
Cliven Bundy, aided by gun-toting misfits, right-wing political hacks and MSN mania, has effectively demonstrated to his fellow Americans what it means to be "exceptional".
I figure he owes each of us 32 cents. So, I want to know where to send the bill and what county he lives in, in case I have to file small claims to collect - or a bunch of us could get together and file a class action suit. If he wants a "we, the people" approach – pay up or get off of my land!!
Yea, all of the politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, disagree publicly with Bundy's comments; but privately they know he is simply telling it like it is but they are unable to agree with him for fear of alienating those about whom Bundy was telling the sad truth. We all know it is not all of them but it is too many!
For the record, bundy is wrong and the govt way overreacted and used ridiculous resources and intimidation for one guy. Oh, and it's another govt agency that for some reason has guns.
Probably because the GOP and the NRA has ensured that criminals like Bundy are heavily armed. What do you think? They should deal with this guy with peashooters instead?