Nevada rancher defends remarks, loses supporters

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Nevada rancher defends remarks, loses supporters
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, center, listens to testimony on a bill challenging federal control of Nevada public lands in a hearing at the Legislative Building in Carson City, Nev., Tuesday, March 31, 2015. Bundy garnered national attention a year ago when he and armed supporters engaged in a showdown with federal authorities. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks during a news conference near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management and Bundy have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks during a news conference along the Virgin River near his ranch on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management and Bundy have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: Rancher Cliven Bundy (R) leaves the podium with body guards after a news conference near his ranch on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: Carol Cox points out her buttons as she supports her cousin, rancher Cliven Bundy, before a news conference on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: American flags flies near a highway sign alerting motorists of possible cattle along Nevada Highway 170 on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. Rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: A Cliven Bundy exits a portable toliet before a news conference on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. Rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: American flags flies along Nevada Highway 170 near rancher Cliven Bundy's ranch on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: Rancher Cliven Bundy (2nd R) speaks during a news conference along the Virgin River near his ranch on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management and Bundy have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
MESQUITE, NV - APRIL 11: People mill around the outside of rancher Cliven Bundy ranch house on April 11, 2014 west of Mesquite, Nevada. Bureau of Land Management officials are rounding up Cliven Bundy's cattle, he has been locked in a dispute with the BLM for a couple of decades over grazing rights. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
MESQUITE, NV - APRIL 10: Protesters hang signs along US. highway 170 protesting the closure of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management land that has been temporarily closed to round-up illegal cattle that are grazing south of Mesquite Nevada on April 10, 2014 in Mesquite, Nevada. BLM officials are rounding up ranchers Cliven Bundy's cattle, who has been locked in a dispute with the BLM for a couple of decades over grazing rights. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
MESQUITE, NV - APRIL 10: Protest signs are posted along US. highway 170 protesting the closure of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management land that has been temporarily closed to round-up illegal cattle that are grazing south of Mesquite Nevada on April 10, 2014 in Mesquite, Nevada. BLM officials are rounding up ranchers Cliven Bundy's cattle, who has been locked in a dispute with the BLM for a couple of decades over grazing rights. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
MESQUITE, NV - APRIL 10: Protesters hang signs on a fence along US. highway 170 protesting the closure of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management land that has been temporarily closed to round-up illegal cattle that are grazing south of Mesquite Nevada on April 10, 2014 in Mesquite, Nevada. BLM officials are rounding up ranchers Cliven Bundy's cattle, who has been locked in a dispute with the BLM for a couple of decades over grazing rights. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
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By Michelle Rindels

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- A Nevada rancher who became a conservative folk hero for standing up to the government in a fight over grazing rights lost some of his staunch defenders Thursday after wondering aloud whether blacks might have had it better under slavery.

Republican politicians from around the country who have rallied to Cliven Bundy's defense in recent weeks denounced the comments and distanced themselves from the rancher, including potential 2016 presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller. Democrats were quick to pounce on the comments and label Bundy a racist.

Bundy has gone from a little-known rancher and melon farmer in rural Nevada to a national political star since he resisted the federal government's attempts to round up his cattle from federal land because he hadn't paid grazing fees for two decades. His supporters, especially those on the right, have praised him for standing up to what they believe is a heavy-handed federal government, and several armed militia members traveled to his ranch to back Bundy.

Cliven Bundy's Controversial Comments

His comments were first published in The New York Times on Wednesday, but he did little to tamp down the controversy as he sought to address the public outrage on Thursday.

Bundy was quoted in a Times story referring to black people as "the Negro" and recalling a time decades ago when he drove past homes in North Las Vegas and saw black people who "didn't have nothing to do." He said he wondered if they were "better off as slaves" than "under government subsidy."

On Thursday during an outdoor news conference near his ranch 80 miles from Las Vegas, he echoed the same sentiment: "Are they slaves to charities and government subsidized homes? And are they slaves when their daughters are having abortions and their sons are in the prisons? This thought goes back a long time."

A statement on the official Bundy Ranch Facebook page Thursday said that Bundy was a "good man, he loves all people, he is not a racist man." Bundy explained that he wasn't saying anyone should be enslaved today.

Politicians who had defended Bundy quickly issued statements condemning the remarks.

"His remarks on race are offensive, and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said Paul, a Kentucky senator.

Heller, who last week called Bundy defenders "patriots" for their stand against the government, "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way," said his spokeswoman, Chandler Smith.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat who last week called Bundy supporters "domestic terrorists," also spoke out against Bundy's words.

"Today, Bundy revealed himself to be a hateful racist," Reid said. "But by denigrating people who work hard and play by the rules while he mooches off public land, he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite."

Bundy says he doesn't recognize federal authority over lands around his property that his cattle have grazed on for years.

The Bureau of Land Management claims the cattle are trespassing on fragile Gold Butte habitat set aside for the endangered desert tortoise, and that Bundy has racked up some $1.1 million in fees and penalties since 1993.

Supporters rushed to Bundy's ranch after a YouTube video showed federal agents using a stun gun on Bundy's son during a BLM roundup of the family's cattle. The resulting armed standoff became so tense that BLM agents and contractors called off the weeklong roundup, released about 350 animals back to Bundy, and left the area April 12.

Federal officials have said the agency would pursue unspecified administrative and judicial remedies, but BLM officials have not provided details.

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