By Stephanie Akin

No dispute that emerged in the aftermath of the George Washington Bridge lane closings has been more incendiary than the one ignited when Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno of tying the release of Superstorm Sandy aid to the approval of a proposed $1.1 billion development project.

And no dispute has hinged so much on the public perception of its protagonists.

Zimmer has been the subject of intense scrutiny. She has been exalted by her supporters as a truth-telling citizen turned politician who was unafraid to take on the Christie administration.

Her detractors, meanwhile, have painted her _ in the words of a report commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie _ as out of touch with reality, saying she mistook her "subjective perceptions" with "objective reality."

Guadagno has escaped that type of intense scrutiny. She is among the least-analyzed players in the sprawling aftermath of the lane closures, in which government functionaries like Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein have assumed large public personas.

Despite her lengthy career, one that has involved stints as a prosecutor and sheriff, and her eventual election as the state's first lieutenant governor, those looking for evidence on her character _ either to defend or discredit her _ will have to dig deep.

And, politically, that could be a benefit.

"It is going to be tough for people to come up with a negative image of (Guadagno) because people don't know anything about her," said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic political consultant who has worked on campaigns for Bill and Hillary Clinton and former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey.

In December, shortly before Zimmer made her allegations on national television, only one in five Garden State residents could name Guadagno as the incumbent lieutenant governor, according to a Monmouth University poll, and few had formed any opinion of her at all _ only 9 percent said they had a favorable view and 3 percent an unfavorable one. Those numbers were unchanged from two years before.

And neither Guadagno nor her advocates have done much to complete the picture. She has continued to maintain the low profile that has characterized her four years in office.

While speculation was swirling around her in recent months, Guadagno gave a speech at a supermarket. She toured a bakery owned by a television celebrity. She visited a company that makes skin care products.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen people deeply entrenched in politics either at the state level or in Guadagno's native Monmouth County either declined to comment for this article or said they didn't know enough about her to say anything of substance. A spokeswoman for the governor's office said Guadagno, whose comments on the allegations have been limited to a news conference and a statement, would not be made available for an interview for this story.

The fuzzy portrait that has emerged of Guadagno in her current office is a far cry from the hard-charging county sheriff and former federal prosecutor she made herself out to be in her pre-Christie days. But it could be her biggest strength as she tries to maintain her political career.

For Guadagno, Sheinkopf added, the public relations strategy appears to be "not to look like a bully, to let Zimmer keep punching, because not all the punches are landing, and have others do the work for you."

The 150 pages on the Hoboken allegations _ part of a 344-page report authored by a team headed by New York City attorney Randy Mastro _ provided a portrait of Zimmer that stands in stark contrast to the one Zimmer presented when she detailed her side of the story on a series of television news shows in January.

In Mastro's telling, Guadagno and the two other officials Zimmer accused were described as former federal prosecutors who would know better than to make such threats. Christie has not made a public statement about Guadagno since Zimmer's allegations were made. Guadagno, following the report's release, reiterated her denials of Zimmer's claims.

"It is clear that Mayor Zimmer's allegations do not stand up to scrutiny, and in truth, are demonstrably false based on contemporaneous documents, other witness accounts, and her own prior statement(s), all contained in the report," she said in a written statement, her first since a January news conference on the matter. "In fact, Mayor Zimmer's version of events was and is fictional."

Most agreed that Guadagno's track record in her current position and in her two years as Monmouth County sheriff indicates that she is extremely careful and self-controlled.

Guadagno, 54, is the first person to serve as New Jersey lieutenant governor, a position voters approved creating in 2005 through a constitutional amendment. She also serves as secretary of state, a position in which she is New Jersey's chief election official and promotes a $38 billion tourism industry. And if Christie were to step down, to run for president in 2016 or for other reasons, she would become the state's next governor.

When Christie announced that Guadagno would again run with him in 2013, ending intense speculation about whether he would replace her, Christie was full of praise for Guadagno, saying she "made the role of lieutenant governor a unique and valuable one."

"She is a trusted adviser and friend who I'm glad to have as my partner in both reelection and public service," he said at the December 2012 press conference.

Born in Waterloo, Iowa, the former Kimberly McFadden moved around the country as a child. Her father managed radio stations. She earned a law degree from American University in Washington, D.C., in 1983 and worked for 15 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and Newark, specializing in organized crime, racketeering and public corruption. She is married to Michael Guadagno, who was elevated to state appellate judge in 2012, and lives in the wealthy borough of Monmouth Beach. The couple have three sons.

After four years at the state Attorney General's Office and a stint on the Monmouth Beach Council, she was elected Monmouth County sheriff in 2007, becoming the first woman to hold the post. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, knew of Guadagno through law enforcement and political colleagues. She was chosen over several others, including Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan, as Christie's running mate in 2009.

Although she has made hundreds of public appearances _ cutting ribbons, attending luncheons and even giving out her cellphone number after speeches _ she rarely goes off-script in public. She stands closed-lipped behind Christie at news conferences. She seldom takes questions from reporters.

"She's pretty much had a low profile since inauguration day 2010," said Carl Golden, a former press secretary for Govs. Thomas H. Kean and Christie Whitman. "In fairness to her, we've never had a lieutenant governor before. She's the first one. There was no job description other than the one given to her by the governor."

As lieutenant governor, her biggest dust-ups included her 2011 decision to kick Olympian Carl Lewis, a Democrat, off the state Senate ballot for failing to meet residency requirements. The decision was later upheld in court, although Lewis has said it was politically motivated and that Christie threatened to "come after him," shortly before he entered the race. The Christie administration had denied that allegation.

She was also widely criticized for her two-year attack on the New Jersey Council on the Arts, which she claimed had improperly awarded contracts for projects. The contracts were later reported to have been approved by Guadagno's office.

But for the most part, Guadagno's focus has been improving the state's economic climate, a job Christie gave her shortly after the pair took office. In that role, business leaders have given her high marks. Under her watch, the state has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax breaks to New Jersey companies that were threatening to leave.

She was visiting Hoboken in her role as a business ambassador on the day that Zimmer claims Guadagno threatened her.

(c)2014 The Record