LAS VEGAS – A Nevada rancher who has become a conservative folk hero for resisting the federal government's attempts to round up his cattle faced sharp criticism Thursday for racist comments published in a New York Times article.
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.
Bundy was quoted in a Times story referring to black people as "the Negro" and recalling a time when he drove past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas and saw black people who "didn't have nothing to do."
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he asked. "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."
The Bundy family issued a statement on its Facebook page saying Bundy is a "good man, he loves all people, he is not a racist man."
"He wants what is best for everyone," the statement said. "We all know that with the media, words are taken out of context, meanings are twisted, and they can take anything and turn it into what they want it to be."
The comments came during a long speech at a sparsely attended news conference Saturday that the Times attended. Bundy has been holding news conferences daily even after the Bureau of Land Management and contractors suspended the roundup citing safety concerns in a tense standoff between armed protesters and federal agents.
Politicians who had defended Bundy quickly issued statements condemning the remarks.
"His remarks on race are offensive, and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said Sen. Rand Paul, once a vocal supporter of Bundy who is considering a run for president.
Nevada Republican Sen. Dean 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, 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 his cattle have grazed for years around his Virgin River melon farm and ranch, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The BLM 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.
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.