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.
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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."
This is a classic reason why as much as we all would like to think that we dont need laws to govern our behavior toward people of color, we do. Can you imagine there being no civil rights laws and affirmative action? this would be the type people who beleive they would have the right to treat other people as if they was lower than animals? I know there would be another civil war in America because of people like this man.
I've still yet to see anything that backs up this guy's assertion that the land belongs to him or that he has free use of it. Seems like he just wants a handout.
how are you going to say anything about this issue on the side of the government. and were not tea parties were americans.
What else is new about the Republicans? And the Republicans want to pretend that they are fair to blacks. Yeah right. I want to see how Foxnews is going to twist this story.
Liberals: "People should be judged on their individuality and not stereotyped."
Liberals: "All conservatives are racist, just like this guy."
Anyone else find humor in this?
It is too funny to read these comments that agree with Bundy. Comments that the black community is poor and they all live in the projects and get government subsidies. Reality is that most black americans live in private homes. The fact is that most blacks work. Unemployment is higher in the black community, but most blacks work. Funnier yet is that for blacks that do work they are under scrutiny because the belief and perception is that they are somehow less qualified to hold jobs.
People don't forget the dang turtles isn't that the point of the mbl in Nevada right now.
I truly believe a large number of conservatives are inherently racist. That number is not as large as some liberals would have you believe, but it is not nearly as small as any conservative would say it is.
I can't believe the wing nuts calling for insurrection. If you don't like what's going on in America move to Russia. Russia fits more in to your political posture.
What else is new with the Republican pary? And yet they want to pretend that they are fair to blacks. I want to see how Fauxnews (Foxnews) is going to SPIN this story.
This man is not a patriot or a true conservative. First, of all he does not recognize the American government. How, patriotic can you be if you do not recognize or honor the rules of your country. Second, he is a law breaker. He has been told many times that his cattle is grazing on public land. Why did he not move his cattle to his property or pay the fine? He must think that he is superior over others and do not have to abide by the rules. Lastly, his actions make him a free loader. A true conservative would honor his or her country, never break the law, and never free load on government subsidies or assistance.
"Why does a LIBERAL like me have guns and a carry permit? To protect myself and my family from people like Bundy, and his fellow haters."
Good call rl! It's gotten to the point where rational people in this country now feel the need to protect themselves not from government or even cops, but from self-proclaimed "patriots" who think they're protecting the rights and freedoms of others by threatening the government in some way or simply by not obeying the law because they disagree with it.
I'm much more concerned about those people than those in gangs, for example, because these anti-government nuts are actually much more dangerous if they ever get organized.
The old dude is a racist who lives off the US Government himself. Well actually he STEALS from the Government! He has no rights to that land unless he pays for it! He is a thief living off of tax-payers hard earned money. What a shame it took the republicans so long to see his is NOT worthy of anybody's defense! If he does not pay for his cattle to graze then he should NOT let them graze on the land. Trust me if it was another rancher's land, he would NOT be stealing from them!
Why is anyone surprised that is piece of human garbage would make a racist remark. Racism is as American as apple pie and motherhood.
these are the ones who gets the hand outs and aways did what happen
in tulsa happen in all of our towns
His comments certainly reveal that although he is opposed to tax subsidies for others, he is willing to fight for the tax subsidy of his own freeloading.
A man who has been free-loading off of government land for decades is wondering whether black folks should be picking cotton instead of getting aid? We should make every effort to create good jobs for all Americans. We already have millions of slaves working for minimum wage.
It's fun to see the repugnicans trip over themselves. First they can't run fast enough to rush to this bigot's defense. But when these same repugnicans find out the true nature of a bigot like Cliven Bundy they can't run away fast enough to distance themselves from Bundy's rantings.
What I think is interesting is that another infamous Bundy is Ted. Or that the Al Bundy family from 'Married With Children' exemplifies his rantings, even though the family was white and the show was broadcast on Fox.
Are Ted Bundy and Cliven Bundy relatives? You never know. It would be a great political ad to have three photos next to each other; the repugnican politician, Cliven Bundy and Ted Bundy with Cliven's statements and then the repugnican's statement in support. I hope that this is the final nail in the coffin of the Pea Tarty.
It sounds like Bundy would be a perfect running mate for Cruz or Palin, wouldn't he?
"After the desert tortoise became a protected species in 1993..."
So,,,when do we get to the part where desert tortoises are being depicted as lazy welfare recipients "on government subsidy", the foul cold-blooded reptiles that they are?
Reid is right to say Bundy "...mooches off public land he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite." Bundy says his family has owned the land since the 1800's, but land records show his land was purchased in 1948 from others. Cattle were loosed on it in 1954.
He should be jailed.
Bundy's only problem is that he couldn't keep his racist feelings inside like the rest of the Republicans.
Is Al Sharpton a racist?
What a bunch of crap.
First, if being a racist meant you had no more rights, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and quite a few others of all races would have given up their rights LONG.... ago.
Second, Fox has NOT treated him like a hero – they remind us at every turn he's lost several appeals over the money he hasn't paid.
For the very dim among us – author of this article included – this is about government over-reach, not about Cliven Bundy.
You don't go in with guns drawn killing cattle left and right because someone owes a few bucks that are in dispute.
Whether they're a racist or not makes NO difference.
NOBODY is surprised to hear this. Birds of a feather...