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."
Can you imagine this situation with Sharon Angle as a US Senator from Nevada? This was after all, the "Second Amendment remedy" she seemed fond of.
"They don't care what the facts are," he said. "They just want a fight."
Glenn Beck actually said this about Bundy and I haven't been able to stop laughing!
This is all YOU did on Faux Beck, heck, this is all you do!
I suppose it is just coincidence that rand paul, whose father associated himself with neoconfederates and people who sympathize with the 3rd Reich and Fascist Japan in a charles lindberg sort of way, supports a man who wants to bring back slavery.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?"
I can tell you something they don't do. They don't graze their cattle on public land for 20 years, refusing to pay the charge. Everything this joker characterizes of others is equally true of him.
People should speak for themselves. This guy obviously isn't too smart
"Politicians denounce Bundy's racist remarks"
The same politicians who called law abiding US citizens domestic terrorist.
This guy is nothing but a trespasser, on the public dole, and a racist! And when you have these so called "patriots" pointing guns at people, somebody is going to get hurt.
I bet every black or mixed race person agrees with this guy. His terminology is certainly ancient, but it's true. The liberal wing took hope and the future from black Americans with their need to be in control over them. Put people on welfare with no way to get off, you just sabotaged their ability to move forward.
You have to admit that a large percentage of blacks live much like they did under the democrats of the south on their plantations it's just now it's democrat plantations called welfare that the DNC gladly provides for in the exchange for their vote.
Such attitudes about race are not uncommon, maybe 60% of the population, the majority of Congress. We had slavery in the US for over 100 years, took a war to get rid of it. Some are still disgruntled about the outcome of that war. Many are opposed to the Civil Rights Act, haven't voted for a democrat since. Many have a covert type of predjudice, hard to detect, but others haven't learned that yet, more open about their bigotry. Racism is pretty common in the US, those that don't believe that just need to get out more. There's no cure for racism, probably getting worse, there's no pill you can take, or some kind of miracle cure. It's widespread, those that aren't white encounter it on a daily basis.
This is one m,ans mindless statement out of nowhere. This is just another article trying to make republicans look racist before the elections. Typical of the democratic party pulling race cards for political gain.
Democrats/Liberals love to scream racist, however they certainly know how to keep minorities from reaching any height of self pride and are using them while actually keeping them down. I found what this man said about slavery to be very accurate, but not racist. The knee jerk reaction is always so hysterically funny......
He's just saying out loud what most narrow-minded, white american males his age think and believe anyway. It doesn't come as a shock to me what came out of his mouth!!! I am a 47 year old african-american, I don't expect any better from such people as Mr.Bundy and ALL his supporters. Why should I? I am a direct descendant of of slaves here in good ole America the free....... The same America that Mr. Bundy lies to, when he refers to the native americans land as "his" land!!!
If a black rancher had failed to pay for his grazing permits and effectively stolen feed off of public land (for which taxpayers are paying), and had then staged an armed standoff with the government, precisely how many Republicans would come to his defense?
You mean to his funeral dontcha?
Either way the answer is none.
really? whats racist about that? He is making a personal observation. And in many respects. he's right on the money. slave to the farmer or slave to the government handout? Take a ride though a few 'hoods'... if you aren't scared to.. and see what you find. He didnt say anything racist. He's talking about learning. growing. contributing to society. having a J. O. B.. Is that indicative of all blacks? of course not. But if you take a look at % of minorities that are on government assistance. the numbers are telling. Contrary to liberial idiocy... conservatives aren't racist. we want everyone to succeed. problem is.. certain members of the population.. are happy with their government check. Its not all that hard to pay attention in class and graduate high school. problem is liberals depend upon those they keep under the government umbrella. Without that reliance on government assistance, they'd never win an election.
No surprise here
The only consolation from all this is that Hannity's audience–most of whom probably agree with Bundy– is dying off by the day. Not soon enough, though.
Cliven Bundy is the archetypal conservative worth defending!
Cliven Bundy's racist comments are preposterous, ignorant, and deplorable. Unfortunately it's true that a good many of those who demonstrate the most rabid opposition to anything and everything Obama says or does, do so because of racist beliefs. However, it's also true that opposition to one or more of the president's plans doesn't necessarily have to be grounded in racism.
...But they would show up to the auction of his ranch lands, cattles and such.
The poster child for the the GOP, Enough said ! How about paying your grazing rights fee, we need it for the poor along with the taxes from corporate welfare. How bout Dat !
He has a point. If the ignoramuses would stop being so quick to cry racist, they might see it. Limiting yourself to a life where government assistance will forever be your crutch make you a slave to your own lack of motivation, and adoption of bad habits and behavior that bring you and your culture down, and limit your success in life. His comment regarding the family structure being lost as well is also relevant. He may not have conveyed his thoughts in the most eloquent and politically correct manner, but he did offer up a compelling argument.
jsalco- you don't need to use a racial slur to be racist. Looking down on an entire race of people, asking if they would be better off slaves picking cotton is indeed racist.
Just for the record, let's not forget what's happened here: All of these prominent Republicans, including at least the Republican Senator from Nevada, Sen. Rand Paul, the Texas AG running for either Senate or Gov, and the rest of them, couldn't wait to have their 10 minutes in front of the camera to support this Welfare Rancher against the Big Bad Gubmint, but now that they have to condemn his overt racism they hide behind spokespeople. Notice that every one of them "issued statements" through others, and that no one of them (so far) has been willing to been seen on video rejecting racism. Why? Because they need the continued support of racists, many of whom are writing on this board and others that there is nothing wrong with what Bundy the Moocher said. Let's not forget that.