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."
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.
Typical uneducated White feeling they are superior.
At 67 he should be thankful he was even born White.
The only thing I am surprised about is his decision to publicly state what are widely held beliefs by a frightening number of people in this country. They hate the government, hate minorities, hate "the moochers" (while simultaneously falling into this category themselves, whether they are aware of it or not). The organized campaign by the extreme right wing in this country over the last few years has been shockingly effective, with despicable results...
Get a life, Free Speech is not just the speech the liberals like but all speech.
I think his cows have more brains than him. At least they know their way back home after eating those free of charge grass. Himself doesn't know that to use the word "N" is a big offence. He doesn't know that he is living in a country of laws where they are strictly obeyed and not like a country of Somalia, where cows lie in the middle of the road when tired, and no one cares.
"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."
And there are posters here who "don't see the big deal?" The GOP is in a death spiral.
There's your base GOP, go pander to it some more!
I believe Mr. Bundy is entitled to his opinion as much as Mr. Sniffet. If you don't like what he says, don't listen.
I will go you one better. He should immediately be adopted as the poster child for the Tea Party. Then he can expound on the TP and the neo-libertarian right to be racist over and over and over. You cannot buy that kind of liberal advertising.
Bundy is a cranky old man whose poor choice of words to describe an example of government dependence undercut a basically truthful message. Government handouts and lack of consequences for bad behavior don't promote a work ethic or a strong family unit.
Oh the irony. Bundy is a cranky old man that for over 20 years has been breaking the law, and using land owned by the federal government without paying for it. How is that not a government hand out? What consequences has he paid? He claims he does not recognize the federal government, yet rides around with an American Flag, and calls himself a patriot. He is a moocher and a hypocrit. Some work ethic.
Liberal rule #4: When you fail to defeat your opponent in the debate call them a racist.
Can you read sir? his comments are racist.
So, if a low income family was to be evicted: and refused to leave, and pulled guns on those attempting to remove them, no charges? The gop has lost their minds, I know if he were a Democrat, the rwnj would be livid.
"Bundy is a cranky old man whose poor choice of words to describe an example of government dependence undercut a basically truthful message."
If his message is so truthful then maybe Cliven Bundy should go live in a tarpaper hut and pick cotton for no pay, worry about where his next meal or whipping is coming from, watch his children get sold off to other farmers and never see them again and live with the debilitating shame of being treated as someone else's chattels instead of a man. Bundy has lived his entire life and ranching career mooching off the federal government and the taxpayers and in yet another fantastic display of the conservative inability to detect irony, neither he nor the conservative apologists trying to justify his racist tirade seem to be able to understand that his statements, if true and defensible as they claim, are 100% applicable to Bundy himself.
Even the fees he's supposed to pay are representative of a gigantic handout, because they are anywhere from 6 to 21 times SMALLER than what other ranchers pay for grazing rights on private land in the free market. He's a leech who thinks he's entitled to it all for free. He's not. There's not a single cogent, valid, meritorious argument to be made in defense of his behavior over the past 20+ years or this recent statement.
Let those fines pile up. Even bankruptcy doesn't discharge government debt
@John: we get what you're saying, and that it could apply 2 people in any ethnic group, but Bundy himself obviously doesn't get that, otherwise he wouldn't have said it. It was a stupid racist remark and that's all there is to it. Why go out of your way 2 defend ignorance and hypocrisy? There's enough of that on this site as it is
In their desperate outreach efforts to get fringe voters, the GOPs have equated small government to anti-government. So anything that is anti-government is good enough for them. So, they call these anarchists their patriots! With patriots like Bundy and Co., we don't need traitors or enemies!
My family has had farmers not pay rent on leased land. Bundy is a deadbeat just like those people were. He is no hero. He owes the federal government, and ultimately the American people, lots and lots of money. I repeat. He is no hero. He is a deadbeat. The courts have told him he is a deadbeat. He is no hero.
Those so-called "militia" are nothing more than local terrorist groups.
We have laws in this country made by citizen-elected officials, and we have means of changing our leaders and the laws peacfully through the system set up.
There is no need to take up arms against your fellow citizens who are only upholding that law until the situation changes where the people no longer have the power to make change by any other means.
Throw the terroists in jail!
What kinds of things were slaves "out doing" as a family? What kind of "family life" did slaves really have? Where did Bundy get his history books?
So the rancher makes his point through a very non-PC statement and liberals go wild. I do not agree with what he said because to me, it all comes down to personal responsibility. Nonetheless, I just drove past a government housing project in Tampa on the way to a meeting and have to agree with him in his observation. Countless black people hanging out and milling around on doorsteps. Young to middle aged black people...working age. It's mid Thursday afternoon here. Why are they just hanging out? If they are unemployed shouldn't they be out looking for employment in the least?
Comments are amazing. If Bundy is so terrible with the land, then why has his family made a living off of it ( Nevada is a desert ) for more then a 100 years?
They haven't. Records show they first ran cattle there in 1954. Quick!: When did Nevada become a state? When was the BLM created?
Your guys lied.
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.
Get a life, Free Speech is not just the speech the liberals like but all speech.
Yes! Make that racist a Tea Party spokesman! Please make a liberals dreams come true.
If his message is so truthful then maybe Cliven Bundy should go live in a tarpaper hut and pick cotton for no pay, worry about where his next meal or whipping is coming from, watch his children get sold off to other farmers and never see them again and live with the debilitating shame of being treated as someone else's chattels instead of a man. Bundy has lived his entire life and ranching career mooching off the federal government and the taxpayers and in yet another fantastic display of the conservative inability to detect irony, neither he nor the conservative apologists trying to justify his racist tirade seem to be able to understand that his statements, if true and defensible as they claim (which they're not), are 100% applicable to Bundy himself.
Let me pull a classic Rudy here:
Sniffit- Harry Reid used the exact same term. Not only that, he was surprised that he didn't have the "negro dialect" and was happy that he was light skinned. You gonna call him a racist?
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.
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.