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Christie, in new populist mode, lashes out at United

Gov. Christie, once a poster boy of the Republican establishment, has embarked on a populist trial run since Donald Trump was elected president. He is raging against corporate America -- casting big business as the enemy of taxpayers, the poor, and paying customers -- putting him at odds with party orthodoxy.

He has challenged top executives at New Jersey's largest health insurer to "reveal" their salaries.

He compares "billionaire" newspaper owners to "pigs feeding at the government trough."

And on Wednesday, Gov. Christie chewed out the biggest airline carrier at Newark Liberty International Airport, declaring bluntly: "Everybody who flies commercially knows United is awful."

Christie, once a poster boy of the Republican establishment, has embarked on a populist trial run since Donald Trump became president. He is raging against corporate America -- casting big business as the enemy of taxpayers, the poor, and paying customers -- putting him at odds with party orthodoxy.

One conservative compared Christie to a "socialist Bernie Sanders."

Depending on whom you ask, Christie is bending to the political winds of the moment, rehabilitating his image as he faces the prospect of leaving office as the least popular governor in the country, or simply making good on a pledge to finish his term "loudly."

One thing is clear: The governor — who likes to portray himself as a Jersey Everyman — is training his attacks on new targets.

"They control 70 percent of the flights in and out of Newark, and ...  I could fill a book with all the complaints I have about United Airlines from constituents who say they're bad," Christie told CNN on Wednesday.

"When Christie was really, really popular, people felt like win, lose, or draw, he was on their side," said Matt Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University. But where for seven years Christie sought to protect his constituents against what he portrayed as the "evils" of government, Hale said, "now he seems to be saying, I'm going to protect you against these terrible companies."

This week, Christie directed his ire at United, which was widely criticized after videos went viral on YouTube showing police officers dragging a passenger off a plane over the weekend to make room for an airline employees. The incident stirred international outrage.

In response, Christie asked the Trump administration in a letter Tuesday to suspend airlines' overbooking authority, and hammered United on TV as seeking profit at the expense of customers.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board anticipated the "populist impulse" to ban overbooking, writing that the proper market solution to the problem was to hold an auction.

"Treat the seat shortage like a market to persuade people to give up their tickets voluntarily," the Journal wrote. "Offer passengers compensation in gradually rising value until enough volunteers give up their seats."

Christie's broadsides against billionaires belie his taste for luxury and seem to contradict his own economic policy.

His administration has awarded billions of dollars in tax incentives to companies that offer to relocate to New Jersey or simply stay in the state with promises to create or retain jobs. Critics on the left and right have decried this policy as corporate welfare.

Since December, Christie has reappropriated that critique, charging that the state's newspapers are ripping off taxpayers through a government-mandated subsidy.

He wants to change a law that requires local governments to publish legal notices, such as ordinances and foreclosures, in newspapers. Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature failed to marshal enough votes in December for a measure that would have allowed local governments to publish the notices online.

As part of his crusade, Christie has singled out "media billionaires" as greedy and dishonest brokers. In Trumpian fashion, Christie has taken to Twitter to argue with journalists over their coverage of the debate.

In another heated policy debate, Christie has boasted of standing up for the poor against "rich insurance companies." In February, he called on Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield to tap its reserve funds for his initiatives against drug addiction. The governor wants Horizon to establish a permanent fund "to support our most vulnerable population who access Charity Care and Medicaid."

Horizon, a nonprofit that provides health insurance to 3.8 million New Jerseyans, says it had $2.4 billion in capital reserves at the end of 2016. It says that the money is needed to protect against risk for its members and that raiding the company's reserves would force it to raise premiums.

Addressing members of a building trades labor union last month, Christie said it was "obscene" that Horizon executives were "willing to pay their lobbyists millions and millions of dollars, yet object to contributing anything to making sure that the drug addicted in our state have a better tomorrow."

"If others won't stand up against rich insurance companies to stand up for the poor, drug-addicted in this state, this governor will stand up," he said, drawing cheers from workers inside the labor hall.

He could have been mistaken for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on his monthly radio show later that day, as he berated Horizon: "If they say they don't have the money, I'd like them to reveal what they pay their lobbyists. What do they pay the CEO?"

Colin Hanna, president of the conservative group Let Freedom Ring and a former Chester County commissioner, compared Christie to "socialist Bernie Sanders" and panned the Horizon move as a "desperate attempt to try and rehabilitate his political image on the backs of hardworking New Jersey taxpayers."

Steve Forbes, the publisher and former Republican presidential candidate, wrote Thursday that Christie's "cash grab" was "directly at odds with the record of commonsense, conservative governance he's built as governor."

Christie made two television appearances Wednesday morning to lash out at United, which employs about 14,000 people in the New York metropolitan area and is the largest carrier at Newark's airport.

But if Christie had heard complaints from constituents about the airline, he didn't go on the offensive until Wednesday.

When his friend and mentor David Samson, former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the airport, was convicted of bribery in a scheme to get United to initiate his own special route, Christie was mostly quiet.

Christie even took the route that Samson described as the "Chairman's Flight" to South Carolina and visited Samson while he was there. There's no indication that Christie knew about the bribery scheme.

Thirteen United executives donated $31,500 to Christie's 2013 reelection campaign, records show. The airline also contributed money to the nonprofit Choose New Jersey, which has helped fund Christie's overseas trips, WNYC reported in 2015.

The state in 2014 awarded United an incentives package to lure the airline to Atlantic City International Airport.

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Christie said United exploits its market share. "They overbook it. They have less planes; they make more money."

"Remember this: they kicked that guy off the plane and the other three to make money," he said. "That's it."

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction: Gov. Christie did not travel with David Samson to South Carolina on the so-called Chairman's Flight.