LAS VEGAS - 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 - including potential 2016 presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller - denounced the comments and distanced themselves from the rancher. 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.
His comments were first published in the New York Times on Wednesday, but he did little to tamp down the controversy 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 that 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.
Heller, who last week called Bundy defenders "patriots" for their stand, "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," said, "Today, Bundy revealed himself to be a hateful racist. 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."