BUNKERVILLE, Nev. – For a while, in certain quarters, Cliven Bundy was celebrated as a John Wayne-like throwback to the Old West – a weathered, plainspoken rancher just trying to graze his cattle and keep government off his back. But that was before he started sounding more like a throwback to the Old South.
Conservative politicians and commentators who once embraced Bundy for standing up to Washington are stampeding away from him – and branding him an out-and-out racist – after he wondered aloud whether blacks had it better as slaves picking cotton.
The furor has made it apparent how limited Bundy’s appeal ever was.
Bundy, 67, and his armed supporters thwarted an attempt by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management two weeks ago to seize his family’s cattle over his failure to pay $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties for the use of government land over the past 20 years. A local land-use dispute soon turned into a national debate, with conservatives calling it another example of big-government overreach.
But the rugged West that Bundy was said to represent has changed, becoming more urban and less concerned about federal intrusion than it was during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and ’80s.
Even many of Bundy’s fellow ranchers, now very much in the minority in the region, regard him more as a deadbeat than a hero.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Bundy was made into a hero by conservative activists and journalists in New York and Washington “who did not understand how extreme Cliven Bundy is ... even among Sagebrush rebels and Nevada ranchers.”
In fact, the remote area outside Las Vegas where he and his supporters made their stand is represented by a black Democrat, Rep. Steve Horsford.
The congressman said in an interview Friday that many of the people in the small towns in the region, which has drawn an increasing number of retirees and tourists seeking to enjoy its open spaces, are frustrated with Bundy.
“They are very upset because he has brought such negative attention to the area,” Horsford said. “He does not reflect Nevada or the views of the West.”
The BLM claims Bundy’s cattle are trespassing on fragile habitat set aside for the endangered desert tortoise. Bundy said he doesn’t recognize federal authority over lands around his property that his cattle have grazed on for years.
After the BLM called off the roundup and released about 350 animals back to Bundy, the rancher drew praise from many Republicans – most notably Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a likely 2016 presidential candidate – and condemnation from several Democrats.
Then, in an interview in Thursday’s New York Times, he suggested that “the Negro” might have been better off during slavery rather than on government welfare.
In a statement Friday, defended himself by saying he is “trying to keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive.” Railing against the BLM, the IRS and the National Security Agency, he said: “What I am saying is that all we Americans are trading one form of slavery for another.”
Before the newspaper story broke, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller, Republicans who got their political start in the sparsely populated northern end of the state, issued statements supportive of Bundy’s side.
Bundy’s racial comments, however, drew bipartisan condemnation.
Heller’s spokeswoman said the senator “completely disagrees” with Bundy’s remarks.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose power base is in Las Vegas, home to most of Nevada’s Democrats, said 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,” Reid added, “he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.