Friday, April 25, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who took center stage advocating for a more limited federal government, may soon be yanked from the spotlight.
After Bundy made off-the-cuff comments about slavery to The New York Times, his most prominent supporters signaled they will turn down the volume on the Bunkerville rancher.
Fox News’ Sean Hannity, a conservative television commentator, provided Bundy with an open mic to assail the Bureau of Land Management for sending armed agents to remove cattle from federal land.
But after Bundy wondered aloud whether African-Americans would have "been better off as slaves," Hannity panned Bundy as a racist and damned his comments as "beyond repugnant."
Bundy had fast become a symbol of the Western rancher to TV viewers in the East, donning a white cowboy hat and faded plaid shirts. But even Nevada’s largest ranching group took a firm stand against Bundy.
"This whole deal has gotten way beyond the scope of our association. … It’s not even worth a comment on our behalf," said Ron Torell, president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association.
The criticism of Bundy on Thursday morning was strong and swift. Nevada Republicans Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval joined Democrats Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Steven Horsford in condemning Bundy’s statements.
Even after Republicans spoke out against Bundy on Thursday morning, the rancher continued his loose-lipped ramblings on race during an afternoon press conference broadcast on live TV. "They’re not slaves no more," he told a crowd in Bunkerville during the press conference. "They seem to be slaves to the welfare system."
Rather than asking him relatively arcane questions about federal land policies, reporters peppered him with questions on race. With that press conference, the topic, tone and subject of the national conversation had shifted from cattle and the BLM to race and Bundy.
After the BLM’s early missteps in the cattle roundup, Nevada politicians immediately jumped in on the issue as a way to rub elbows with the conservative element of the party, said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at UNR.
"And they got burned," he said.
"What we’ll see is that all of these politicians who too quickly embraced Bundy will say that we embraced the principles and not the man," Herzik said.
Heller’s and Sandoval’s statements were a shift from their earlier comments. The Republicans had criticized the BLM for sending armed federal agents to remove Bundy’s cattle and creating First Amendment areas to limit where people could protest. Sandoval called the BLM’s actions "offensive." Heller touted Bundy supporters as "patriots" and demanded congressional hearings into the BLM.
Sandoval said Thursday: "Mr. Bundy’s statement is far beyond the boundaries of decency and is disgusting and offensive. In no way does it reflect the values of Nevadans."
Chandler Smith, Heller’s spokeswoman, said: "Senator Heller completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy’s appalling and racist statements and condemns them in the most strenuous way."
The Republicans say they aimed their original comments at the BLM and not in support of Bundy’s decision to ignore federal court orders to remove his cattle and pay $1 million in overdue grazing fees.