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Sheriff Joe Arpaio dodges a recall in Arizona. Still, is his star waning?

Foes did not collect enough signatures to force a recall election of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the controversial law officer from Arizona known for his tough immigration-enforcement stance.

By Lourdes MedranoCorrespondent / May 31, 2013

Simon Lopez (l.) and Hiliaro Islas hold signs while trying to collect signatures in an effort to recall Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Wednesday, in downtown Phoenix. Organizers of a campaign aimed at ousting Arpaio face a deadline Thursday afternoon for handing signatures to force a recall election against the lawman.

Matt York/AP

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Tucson, Ariz.

Three years after Arizona approved a tough immigration law that brought both praise and disdain from across the nation, most of the measure's standard-bearers are but a memory in state politics. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio remains the last man standing.

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Mr. Arpaio on Thursday sidestepped a recall attempt, just a week after a federal judge ruled that the sheriff's office had engaged in systematic discrimination against Latinos in violation of their constitutional rights. Still, he is wobbling.

"I don't think he's the political force he once was," says David Berman, a senior fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

The May 24 ruling from US District Judge Murray Snow, who ordered Arpaio to stop using race or ancestry as a basis for traffic stops and detentions, was a setback for the sheriff's trademark immigration enforcement, which had made him a superstar among supporters of the state's crackdown on illegal immigration. The judge's decision came as a result of a class-action suit filed by several Latinos.

Recall campaign organizers had seized on the ruling to boost signature-gathering, but nonetheless fell short of the 335,000 needed by Thursday to force a special election.

"This ruling would've given us a victory, really, if it would've come a month ago," says Lilia Alvarez, campaign manager of the 120-day recall effort. Still, adds Ms. Alvarez, "we're vindicated in our cause."

The sheriff won't have to face a recall election, but for now the usually defiant Arpaio has been subdued by the court ruling. In a video posted on YouTube, the sheriff says he will appeal the ruling but will abide by it in the interim.

"The court's order is clear," Arpaio says. "We will no longer detain persons believed to be in the country without authorization whom we cannot arrest on state charges."

His legal troubles, coupled with his foray last year into the "birther" movement, have diminished the influence of one of the most prominent figures in Arizona's push to stamp out illegal immigration, Mr. Berman says.

Like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), Arpaio rode a wave of popularity as a promoter of SB 1070, the 2010 law that made it a state crime for anyone to live in the country without proper government authorization. The courts struck down much of the measure, but still in effect is the so-called "papers please" provision that allows police in Arizona to ask about the immigration status of people they investigate for other reasons.

While Governor Brewer last year issued an order denying driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants who qualify for President Obama's deferred action program, she has lately put aside immigration matters to do battle with the GOP-led Legislature over her push for Medicaid expansion.

Meanwhile, former state Sen. Russell Pearce, sponsor of the controversial immigration law that generated copycat laws in other states and brought lawsuits and economic boycotts to Arizona, is out of politics. Many of the same Latinos behind the recall campaign against Arpaio organized a similar effort against Mr. Pearce, who was ousted in 2011. He ran for state office again in 2012 but was defeated.

Pinal County's Paul Babeu and Cochise County's Larry Dever, sheriffs who rode Arizona's anti-illegal immigration fervor into iconic status, are out of the picture. Sheriff Dever died in a rollover accident in late 2012. His blood alcohol level was more than three times the state's legal limit of 0.08. Sheriff Babeu retreated after his ex-lover, a Mexican immigrant, outed him as gay.

Arpaio himself was reelected in 2012 to a sixth four-year term, in his toughest race ever.  

"His days are counted," Alvarez insists.

Berman is not convinced. Arpaio and his defiance of the Obama administration represent those who hold deep-seated feelings against the federal government – and that sentiment is unlikely to dissipate quickly, he says.

"He's the real symbol of that opposition," Berman adds.

It's no surprise to Bruce Merrill, a political scientist who has directed various Arizona polls on immigration, that Arpaio endures even as other immigration hard-liners vanish.

"He's been the dominant one for a long time," says Mr. Merrill, citing Arpaio's media savvy as one factor.

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