By Timothy Cama - 04/24/14 10:05 AM EDT
Republicans who had supported Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his fight with the government over grazing fees rebuked him on Thursday after he made controversial comments about African-Americans.
Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) sharply criticized comments that Bundy made about slavery, calling them racist and offensive.
The New York Times quoted Bundy referring to black people as “the Negro” and questioning whether they were better off as slaves.
“His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” Paul said in a statement Thursday shortly after the Times published its story.
Both senators have previously defended Bundy in his dispute against the Bureau of Land Management, which has accused the rancher of using federal land to graze his cattle for decades without paying fees. Paul criticized the government’s handling of the dispute, while Heller has referred to Bundy’s supporters as patriots.
Bundy’s latest comments came at a recent press conference on his ranch, the Times reported.
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” Bundy said of black people, according to the Times. “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.”
Bundy stood by his comments in an interview Thursday on "The Peter Schiff Show."
"The statement was right," Bundy said.
"I'm wondering if they are better off under the government subsidy when their young women are having abortions and their young men are in jail. I'm wondering are they happier now under this government subsidy system then they were when they were slaves and able to have their family structure together and chickens and a garden," Bundy said Thursday.
Democrats seized on Bundy’s comments to try and embarrass his Republican supporters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has called the armed supporters who rallied to Bundy's side “domestic terrorists,” said the rancher has “revealed himself to be a hateful racist.”
“To advance his extreme, hateful views, Bundy has endangered the lives of innocent women and children. This is not a game. It is the height of irresponsibility for any individual or entity in a position of power or influence to glorify or romanticize such a dangerous individual, and anyone who has done so should come to their senses and immediately condemn Bundy,” Reid said in a statement.
The Nevada State Democratic Party called Bundy’s comments “reprehensible,” and challenged his supporters to denounce him.
“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,” the party said.
Bundy’s case gained national attention early in April, when BLM sent armed officers and contractors to his ranch near Bunkerville, Nev., and began to confiscate his cattle. Hundreds of supporters and armed militia members came to the ranch and pledged to defend him, spurring BLM to leave and release the cattle, citing safety and the possibility of violent conflict.
The bureau said Bundy has not paid grazing fees to use the land since 1993, when the agency changed his lease and fee structure to protect an endangered tortoise. He owes about $1 million in fees and fines, the agency said.
Bundy does not recognize the federal government’s authority over the land. He has said his family has used the area for grazing since the 1870s, before the BLM was established.
Bundy’s cause has significant support in the Tea Party and among the Republican base. Among potential GOP presidential candidates, Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were initially the only ones to express support.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Tuesday linked the BLM’s tactics to the White House, calling Bundy's case the “unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government upon.”
Bundy's dispute with the federal government has also been covered heavily by conservative media outlets.
Radio and Fox News host Sean Hannity, who frequently expressed support for Bundy on his show, distanced himself Thursday from the rancher’s comments.
“His comments are beyond repugnant to me,” Hannity said on his show. “They are beyond despicable to me. They are beyond ignorant to me.”
He said he worries that Bundy’s comments would brand Republicans and Bundy’s supporters as racist.
“Every conservative that I know does not support racism, period,” he said.
— This story was last updated at 3:47 p.m.