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Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic mayors diverge on acceptance of Syrian refugees

The issue of accepting Syrian refugees has exposed a divide between Florida's Republican governor and Democratic big-city mayors, a partisan split featured in other states.

While Gov. Rick Scott opposes the relocation of 425 Syrian refugees to Florida, the Democratic mayors in Tampa and St. Petersburg welcome the arrivals.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said some local nonprofits have already resettled some Syrians in the area without incident. National security is a priority, he said, but rigorous screening should eliminate any potential threat.

"It's unfortunate that there are those who would choose to politicize this and demagogue an ethnicity and a country when the vast majority of the refugees who are coming are children," Buckhorn said.

Last year, 36 Syrian refugees settled in Hillsborough County, the most in Florida, according to the Department of Children and Families. Pinellas ranked third with 17.

"St. Petersburg is a city of opportunity with a growing international profile," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. "We welcome people with open arms here, and we're succeeding because of it."

Neither Scott nor the mayors can prevent refugees from coming to Florida or their cities, a lack of jurisdiction cited by Orlando's Democratic mayor, Buddy Dyer, in declining to comment.

On the Republican side, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said he supported Scott's position.

"We cannot allow those who would do us harm to use our principles and beliefs as a weakness to exploit, particularly when those who claim credit for the Paris attacks have promised attacks on United States soil," Curry wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Clearwater's Republican Mayor George Cretekos said Scott is doing "what he thinks is best."

"I'm not saying open up and let whoever wants to come to Clearwater come to Clearwater because we can't be sure that's the right, safe decision," Cretekos said. "You wouldn't want a known terrorist to come into your hometown."

But he also said humanitarian efforts are needed, and officials must not discriminate.

"Let's say that somebody fleeing from Syria now has family in Florida," Cretekos said. "Are we going to say, 'Oh, no, you're in Syria, you can't come here, but you have family who are established residents'? That's why you have to do an individual basis."

Buckhorn took issue with those who want favorable treatment only for Christian Syrians.

"We're a nation of immigrants," Buckhorn said. "We always have been. We always will be, and to single out one particular group and break it down by perhaps allowing only Christian Syrians in really goes against the grain of everything we stand for as Americans."

Contact Charlie Frago at or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.