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In Arizona And New York, A Pair Of Immigration Foes Fall

First Posted: 11/10/2011 12:31 pm EST Updated: 01/23/2014 6:58 pm EST

For a pair of Arizona and New York Republicans known for their hard line on immigration, political defeat could be seen as a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

Now, emboldened GOP opponents and immigration activists are lining up other targets, such as the swashbuckling Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In Arizona, the architect of that state's controversial immigration law, Senate president Russell Pearce, was voted out of office Tuesday by a fellow Republican opposed to the immigration crackdown.

In New York, the tumultuous era of Long Island Republican Steve Levy, the Suffolk County Executive, came to end that same night with Steve Bellone's Democratic victory over Angie Carpenter.

Levy had bowed out of running for a third term last year in a deal with investigators looking into campaign fundraising irregularities but his tenure had been widely criticized for his tough stance on immigration.

In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, said Suffolk County political leaders, including Levy, "fanned the flames" of racial hatred before the stabbing death of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero by a group of young white men.

The Republican defeat in Suffolk came on the three-year anniversary of Lucero's death on Nov. 8, 2008.

It is debatable whether two Republican defeats at opposite ends of the country represent a referendum on the GOP's anti-immigrant policies.

But the fall of Pearce, perhaps Arizona's most powerful politician, is significant. He pioneered S.B. 1070, the highly contentious immigration law passed in Arizona in 2010 and quickly challenged in the courts by the federal government. The law would have allowed police to ask for immigration papers at stops if they had "reasonable suspicion" someone was undocumented.

Pearce's political demise was a recall election forced by a petition drive from Citizens for a Better Arizona, a group headed by Democratic labor leader Randy Parraz. The group maintained that his anti-immigration agenda largely ignored the needs of his district and hurt the state's reputation, The Los Angeles Times reported:

Parraz, who led the recall, said that is too soon to say if this is part of a larger political trend in the state, but it does send a clear message.

"This shows that when politicians overreach, there is a way to hold them accountable," Parraz said.

The group has set its sights on another controversial figure in the state, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is planning to seek a sixth term if he doesn't run for the seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl.

Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," has long drawn strong reactions in the state and nationally for his aggressive tactics in rooting out illegal immigrants.

The sheriff, who was at Pearce's side during his concession speech, said in an interview Wednesday that the outcome was an anomaly and the result of this "strange" election was not representative of the rest of the state.

The group that spurred the recall can come after him if it wants, he said.

"If they think they're going to intimidate me, I got news for them," Arpaio said. "This is the sheriff you're talking about, with a gun and badge that enforces the law. Nothing is going to stop me from cracking down on illegal immigration as long as the laws are there."

Andrei Cherny, the Arizona Democratic Party chairman, told the Los Angeles Times that Pearce's ouster was a step toward changing the tone of the political discourse in the state. But the Republican-controlled state legislature has closely followed Pearce's lead on immigration.

"The rest of the Russell Pearce clones in state government, from the governor on down to the state legislators, will continue his brand of right-wing extremism," Cherny said. "But what this shows is the voters have had enough and is an opening for a more mainstream, common-sense kind of leadership in the state."

Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which helped Arizona and other states to develop their immigration enforcement laws, shrugged off Pearce's loss, USA Today noted.

"You can't use a narrow special election as any kind of barometer of public sentiment on immigration," Dane said. "Reducing illegal immigration reduces taxpayer burdens and enhances public safety – there's nothing more popular at the polls than that."

Some analyst said voters in Arizona delivered a clear message that issues such as the economy, jobs and education should come before immigration.

"The Legislature remains extremely conservative but with regards to making illegal immigration their top priority, this should be a warning shot across the bow," political analyst Chris Herstam, a Republican lobbyist and former legislator, told Fox News.

And on that point, even political opponents agree.

"Anti-immigrant extremism is a political loser," Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group, told USA Today. "It mobilizes Latino voters who want acceptance and respect, and it angers sensible Republicans, independents and Democrats who want their leaders to focus on bread-and-butter issues, not hot-button cultural issues."

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Filed by Ray Sanchez  |