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Two openly gay men are among the 23 candidates seeking to become mayor of the hurricane- and flood-ravaged Big Easy.

James Arey, a classical-music disc jockey and music manager for the local National Public Radio station, is running as 'the arts candidate.'

'Support for the arts equals job growth, both as a tool for increasing the tax base of the city and creation of actual new jobs, and as a vehicle to create more well-rounded public-school students,' Arey, 38, said in an interview.

'I'm talking with gallery owners, artists, people who run studios in the French Quarter and in the arts district downtown to expand the notion of an arts season,' he said.

Arey also has an 'arboretum plan.' He wants to work with nurseries and forestry agencies to replant historic trees and shrubs.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Arey says the city needs a serious evacuation plan. Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city in up to 20 feet of water and killed nearly 1,000 people when the storm surge broke the levees.

'An evacuation needs to have the ability to reach all residents of the city [ through such things as ] global positioning and satellite phones,' he said. 'The district and ward captains would report to neighborhood leaders who would report to their city councilperson, who would report to the mayor, who stays in constant contact with the governor's office. Every citizen of the city and every elected official has an obligation to make sure people we know, people we work with, our neighbors are safely evacuated.

'There will be a next time,' Arey said. 'It's just a matter of time and to what extent.'

Only about 189,000 of New Orleans's 484,000 residents have returned to the city nearly seven months after Katrina hit, the levees collapsed and a total evacuation was ordered. Many remain elsewhere because they lack a home and/or job to come back to. Others can't return because only 20 of the city's 124 public schools have reopened.

Arey only recently moved back into his home in the flooded Mid-City neighborhood.

'Lesbians saved my neighborhood,' he said. 'That is absolutely true. I had to evacuate to Atlanta because our WWNO studios were unavailable. We broadcast via a PBS satellite from Atlanta. Lesbians snuck back into my neighborhood after hours and before hours.

'They harassed FEMA representatives, they stopped Red Cross trucks and got food and water for workers, they brought in supplies and gas masks, they stayed on Entergy [ the gas and electric company ] . They got into everyone's house, with permission. They got out on the Web with the first pictures from the neighborhood. Anybody in that area that needed assistance, they were there to provide it.'

Mid-City likely has New Orleans's highest concentration of lesbians, while gay men are more likely to live in the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, the Bywater and Uptown, none of which flooded.

Arey doesn't expect to win the April 22 election. He thinks he'll come in fifth or sixth. But he believes his candidacy serves to keep important issues front-and-center in the campaign.

The top two vote-getters will advance to a May 20 runoff election.

Arey said his sexual orientation has at no time become an issue in the campaign.

The second gay candidate is Leo Watermeier, a former state representative and founding cochair of the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans.

He is promising to 'cut the waste' in such areas as no-bid contracts, consultants, outside attorneys, unclassified employees, city cars, employee travel and public relations.

With the savings, he proposes to improve the police department, cut the crime rate, fix the streets, upgrade city services and restore parks, playgrounds and libraries.

New Orleans, Watermeier points out, has a 'reputation of corruption, political payoffs and sweetheart deals.'

In the wake of the disaster, Watermeier says the city's levees and pumps must be upgraded to provide protection from a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest. Katrina was at Category 3 when it hit New Orleans.

He also proposes diverting a local hotel tax earmarked for convention-center expansion to rebuild streets, parks, libraries and infrastructure.

Like Arey, Watermeier doubts he'll make it to the runoff election, but that wasn't always the case.

'Before Katrina ... there was this strong sense that you couldn't beat [ Mayor Ray Nagin ] ,' he said. 'The population of the city was majority Black [ as is Nagin ] and no sitting mayor has been defeated since 1947. So I started doing this grassroots campaign and, at the time, it seemed like there was a good chance I was going to be his main opposition because the big-guns kinds of people didn't see him as vulnerable.

'I wanted to stop the waste and fix the city,' Watermeier said. 'We were trying to get good government in New Orleans. Now, Katrina changed all our worlds and the big guns have gotten into the race—the sharks are circling the body; they smell blood and see an easier target. So, my chances have kind of been sinking.'

Watermeier, 56, supports the rebuilding of all New Orleans neighborhoods, including the ones flattened by the force of the water as it smashed through levees and the ones where homes were destroyed by floodwater that remained for several weeks.

'Every neighborhood has a right to rebuild,' he said. 'If the path of Katrina had been 20, 30 or 40 miles west, all of the city would have been under water. The surge would have been higher when it broke through the levees—and when it ended up leveling off, the flood level would have been higher. We live in a flood plain. You can't say that there are areas of the city that are safer.'

Watermeier, too, said his sexual orientation has been a nonissue in the campaign.

'I don't see it being a concern,' he said. 'I haven't made it an issue. Early in the campaign, we decided not to hide it. On the Web site it says I was cochair of the Lesbian and Gay Community Center. But, like in life, people get to know you, and then as they get to know more about you, they learn more about you.

'So that was the kind of approach we took with the whole gay thing,' he said. 'Let people get to know me as a candidate ... and then it would become, like, 'Oh, yeah, he's gay,' and it's just another part of learning about him.'

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