BETHEL — Building on her record as a strident critic of President Donald Trump, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, traveled to the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival Monday to attack the administration's proposal to eliminate federal funding for arts programs and public broadcasting.
"I don't know what motivates President Trump for any of the horrible decisions he has made in the first few months of his administration," Gillibrand said in response to a question on what is driving the push to slash funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and Natural Endowment for Humanities.
Meeting with local officials at what is now the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Gillibrand said there is bipartisan opposition to the proposed shifts in the federal budget and called on artists to use social media platforms, write a play and find other ways to speak out against the cuts.
"The NEA and NEH give local museums in small towns more resources to teach students on field trips, and they fund educational programming on PBS, beloved by children and their families," she said.
The NEA, in particular, has been a longtime target of conservatives who charge that the taxpayer dollars it gets amount to "welfare for artists." It and the NEH were founded in 1965, and combined, they get about $300 million annually from the federal government.
Gillibrand has been an outspoken critic of the new administration since Trump took office in January, and has cast more votes opposing his cabinet appointments than any other senator. While some Democratic activists, including the party's former national chairman, Howard Dean, have suggested she could be a popular candidate for the White House in 2020, the senator insists she is focused on running for re-election to the Senate seat in 2018.
In Bethel, she repeated the critique she released last week of the Trump administration's decision to launch a rocket attack at a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack targeting civilians.
"He does not have the authority to take militancy action in the way he did," said Gillibrand, arguing that while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deserved a strong response, it should have been run past Congress as well as other world leaders.
As for her own budget priorities, Gillibrand said Trump should seek to eliminate "tax loopholes" favoring multi-national corporations instead of imposing reductions on the arts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She noted Trump wants to increase military spending by some $50 billion but did not specifically criticize that piece of the spending plan.
A Trump supporter, state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, said Gillibrand had been a moderate while holding a House seat representing a swing district including parts of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. But since being appointed to the Senate by former Gov. David Paterson, "She has been in a rush to become (Vermont Senator) Bernie Sanders' sister" and has "moved 90 miles an hour to get to the left of everybody.
As for the proposed cuts to cultural organizations, Long said, "I would rather see the money go into individuals' pockets than to somebody's art foundation. I don't believe that's the role of government."
With speculation building that Gillibrand harbors White House ambitions, conservative websites have stepped up their focus on New York's junior senator, suggesting she is positioning herself for a run for the presidency.
A veteran observer of New York and national elections, Harvey Schantz, a political science professor at the State University at Plattsburgh, said he expects Gillibrand will have little difficulty winning re-election next year, after which "she will have time to think about the presidency."
He noted only two presidents have come from the ranks of the Senate over the past 57 years, with John F. Kennedy taking the White House in 1960, and Barack Obama coming out on top for the first of his two terms in 2008.
"For Democrats, the conventional wisdom is that in order to win the presidential nomination you have to be more liberal than the electorate as a whole because the Democratic primary brings out the activists," Schantz said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.