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."
While his words smack of ignorance, this mans questions seem to come from a very real curiosity and not from a sense of meanness. His thought process seems to be asking why is there such a high concentration of people from one race that are trapped in a hopeless economic situation? The brutal answer is that slavery destroyed their core family fabric. When a family is broken apart it can create a multi-generation curse of continued broken families for centuries upon centuries. This happens in white families too. However, breaking up families was done on an unmatched scale to black families during slavery. It takes a very strong man with deep moral values to recognize this and do the right things to keep a family together when he originates from a broken family.
How can anyone see Cliven Bundy as anything other than a free loading scofflaw? As for where Bundys support comes from, who can be surprised? The conservative right wing is sowing the seeds of this great countrys destruction. How sad.
Bundy is the "Welfare Mama" of the GOP,
Let's open the lands held by the BLM to poor inner city families to take over and use as they see fit! Like a modern day land rush but only those families and invdividuals below the poverty line can apply!
This guy needs to be. dealt qith by the feds...who doea he think he is violating National Park Service lands to enrich himself...not open any bills from the govt and then call in militias....if everyone that owed property taxes did this there would be anarchy....which is what he believes in
Wayne fer. I had no idea about what happened in Tulsa until about 2 months ago. That's something that was definitely not EVER talked about in History class.
I can't say anything about it here because it will get zapped. But more people should know what happened to our law abiding citizens.
Good luck to you Wayne and God Bless!
The question is, are these conservative politicians condemning this ranchers comments because they truely disagree, or because it is politically dangerous to do so? I personally believe that a lot of these guys agree with him behind closed doors, but know to side with him publicly would end thier careers. Bundy is a great representative of the views of this far right wing of the Republican party, where the good ol days owning slaves and wearing a sidearm to settle disputes in the streets is considered a romantic notion.
What about Harry Reid calling Obama a "clean" black and "he speaks well". Or Joe Biden telling a black audience the Repubs were gonna "put them in chains" again?
This man and his cronies exemplify what is wrong with our country.
I knew something like this would come out if they kept giving this guy a microphone...
they just can't hold themselves back from showing their true colors. This is the new Republican Party...so so sad
What's really a surprise is how CNN and the rest of the MSM sat on this story for days until they found something, something that fit within their narrative! Did you mention anything to PETA about the dead cows?
Once again, republicans got played and look like fools. This set up was obvious from the beginning and talk radio and Hannity fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Bundy and Reid are related by blood, are both from Nevada, are from families who came across the West in the same gathering, and are both democrats (see Bundy's political voting record online) AND are both Mormons who have attended the same Temple. Republicans got played and lost, bad.
I suppose he hates Jews too, right? Stick to the subject. Stop race baiting
The FBI should round all these people up and throw them in prison.This isn't the wild west, this is a modern industrialized country with rule of law and if you don't follow it, you get locked up. What kind of image does this project to our allies around the world?
And just a few years ago, dissent was patriotic.
This has got to be one of the funniest things to happen in a long time. Just a few short days ago, the republicans were hovering around this dude as if he were the sounding board for their grievances to the government. Now, they want to distance themselves from him and make believe it never happened. HYPOCRITES.
He didn't lie about the situation he saw. You can't condemn him for wondering. But Ried stockgobbing tells you a lot.
This dude lost his credibility rambling about something he knows nothing about. How many black people do you think this man actually knows? He is basing his statements on TV shows like The Wire. I am not even sure he knows enough to be a real racist. Ignorant: yes, but real racism is based on hate and you can't hate what you know nothing about.
He is right about the free grazing part though. His ancestors signed a treaty with the state goverments that allowed free grazing and now the fed gov is refusing to honor it. The land was turned over from the state to the federal gov so now they need to decide in court if the treaty made with the state must still be recignized by the new owner. I suspect it will have to be – so he is right about his right to free graze. Like it or not...
"What's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable".....old Soviet negotiating technique.
Seems Bundy feels the same way, when it comes to others people money too?
Maybe all of those people so concerned about the hurt we do to those who don't have a job, can agree that what we need is a federal government job guarantee. If people are guaranteed a job simply for the asking then we can begin to blame those who are without a job for the fact that they are not working.
The biggest travesty here is that media gives these insufferable goons a forum. Why? Well, to drive page views to sell advertising – the more heinous and controversial, the more comments, the more traffic and ad revenue. Unfortunately, we have a large segment of the population that is not bright enough to figure that out, and so they pick sides (because, in blowhards like Bundy, they see a reflection of their own views and feel validated). Bundy is a freeloader and a thief – nothing more. Media gave him a gang of armed thugs.
Welcome to the bottom of the slippery slope. We have ALL traded in our freedom for equality. Blacks and whites are now equal, in that we have become slaves to an ever-expanding government. Regardless of what the politicians want us to believe in the name of election advantage, there is no war on race. There is a war on freedom of all races.
Wow! When Ms. Clinton becomes President, I hope she can deal with horrible people like this!
If a person is a Republican, it doesn't necessarily mean they are a racist. However, if you are a racist, you are most definitely a Republican.