MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's the first full week of the new year, and that's a time that a lot of people are getting back into the office, starting to try to work off those holiday pounds and trying to hang onto those New Year's resolutions for as long as they can. So in the spirit of the new year, we thought this would be a good time to look ahead at some of the big stories that might be shaping the way we live and think in 2014. So we've called on three people who have a view on the news and the world. Joining us now is Julio Ricardo Varela, He's founder of the website LatinoRebels.com. We reached him in Boston. Julio Ricardo Varela thanks so much for joining us.
JULIO RICARDO VARELA: Great to be here, as always.
MARTIN: Also, political commentator Jason Johnson is with us. He teaches political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio. We caught up with him in our bureau in New York. Jason Johnson, thank you so much for joining us. Happy New Year to you.
JASON JOHNSON: Thank you, always glad to be here.
MARTIN: And from New York also, Brendan Costello. He's co-host of The Largest Minority, which is produced - it's a radio program produced at WBAI in New York. Brendan, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome, and Happy New Year to you.
BRENDAN COSTELLO: Happy New Year, Michel. Pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: So Brendan, this is our first time meeting you. So if we could start - we'd like to hear a little bit more about you and your program. You talk about issues and topics that are of significant concern to people who are living with disabilities. Can you just tell us how you got started on this?
COSTELLO: Well, to begin with, I became the host of the program in about 2005. But I had been involved with it prior to that. I was - I'm a person with a disability. I was paralyzed in 1996. But my disability experience sort of stretches back before that because my parents were deaf, and so I had the experience of growing up as a deaf - hearing child of deaf adults and had a little bit of an understanding of disability in that regard. At a very different time, I think the '70s and '80s were a very different time for people with disabilities than present - in more recent decades have been.
MARTIN: So you've got a lot of experiences - personal experiences and family experiences to draw on in doing your reporting and discussions about this. Why do you call the show The Largest Minority? How did that idea come - that topic come about, do you remember?
COSTELLO: Well, actually, it was - I sort of inherited the program from people who had started it prior to me. And the person who founded the program was a woman named Frieda Zames, who was essentially like a real, true, amazing hero of disability rights in New York. If there's one person who's responsible for a lot of what New Yorkers - particularly have enjoyed for access in terms of, like, curb cuts and accessible buses, she was one of the main people responsible for that.
And her - the philosophy was the idea that people with disabilities are, you know, classified as a minority. And of course this is also at a time when that term was still not as pejorative or frowned upon as it currently is. But people with disabilities make up - the recent estimates are probably different, but the number that I was always told was 54 million people in the country. And that is a fairly sizable chunk of the population. Now not everyone who might be classified as a disability identifies as a person with a disability. But as a group, as a minority, it is one of the largest demographics in that regard.
MARTIN: So we called you - we also want to hear - so thank you for that - I also want to hear about the show - but we also want to hear about the stories that you're covering. A lot of the issues that you cover on the program have a lot to do with access.
MARTIN: And access to the kinds of institutions that able-bodied people have access to without even really thinking about it, like say the New York City subway system. So going forward in 2014, what are some of the top issues that you think you'll be following?
COSTELLO: Well, a lot of what we cover on the show and a lot of what I'm anticipating that we'll be covering in 2014 - again, perhaps sort of belies a lack of imagination on my part - but I believe that a lot of the stuff that we'll be covering will be things that we have been covering in the past because there are a lot of the struggles or a lot of the issues that we have been working on are things that have been ongoing. For example, accessible taxis is a - has been an issue in New York for quite a long time.
And the way that that issue has played out, particularly in the last year or two with the former mayor fighting a lawsuit to get a federal injunction to have the new fleet become all wheelchair accessible or at least partially wheelchair accessible - that was an ongoing thing and it will still be an ongoing thing. Another ongoing lawsuit that we've dealt with is access to emergency facilities, which was something that was an issue before Sandy. But certainly, when hurricane, or Superstorm Sandy occurred in 2012, there were a lot of people with disabilities who were completely thrown way further off of their - out of their lives than able-bodied people in the same situations or even in the same neighborhoods because they were - they went to the places that were supposed to be shelters and they couldn't get in.
MARTIN: Interesting. Important stuff. So thanks for joining us and I hope you'll stand by because we want to bring our other guests in the conversation. We want you to stay with us. Jason Johnson, the - some of what we've been talking about with Brendan does speak to - it speaks to accessibility issues. But it also all - issues around health care. And that was such a big story 2013. The Affordable Care Act and how the rollout of it went forward or didn't.
MARTIN: You know, as the case may be. Looking forward in 2014, what are some of the issues that you think you'll be spending the most time thinking about?
JOHNSON: You know, I think, you know, the rollout was terrible. Everybody says it was really bad. We don't understand how Obama, who was so tech savvy in the campaign can't figure out a website. I mean, I think that's going to be done by the spring. I think the biggest story about health care is going to probably hit around the summer. And when people actually need the product and if people can get the product, then I think we're going to have a very, very new narrative.
And that's going to be a big part of the summer. I also think that immigration is going to be important, not just from the standpoint of the Republicans trying to do it to score points and the Democrats trying to finally do something for the Latino voter, but for economic reasons. And lastly, and this is sort of a - this is more inside baseball - but I think it's going be key - at the end of last year, Boehner was talking about how they were going to try to teach Republican candidates how to speak to women and how to speak to minorities. And I really think this - I think this is going to be real. I think Reince Priebus, I think that the Republican Party is really going to try to make 2014 the year where they change their campaign rhetoric. They don't need any more Todd Akin's going into a critical midterm. And I think that's going to be a real story.
MARTIN: Julio Ricardo Varela, what about you?
VARELA: You know, I basically am just going to take what was said and say the same thing. I think immigration is the biggest lynchpin issue in the U.S. Latino population for 2014 and as well as 2016. I think there's been a lot of disillusionment since the 2012 election, not from self-deportation but also promises by the president regarding the reform passing - it's a contentious debate. There's a lot of activism on both sides, mostly on the progressive side, basically calling out both Republicans and Democrats about record deportations, about why this hasn't passed. And I believe that all the activism that's happened in 2013 will continue and Latino Rebels will continue to be following things that have been happening. And, you know, it's one of the biggest - it's the biggest heartstring issue in the U.S. Latino community.
MARTIN: OK, but, Julio, let me ask you about this, though, because there was so much talk about - after the last presidential election about the emergence of Latinos as an important voting bloc. But is there any instance in which, other than the re-election of President Obama, one can see the manifestation of that influence?
VARELA: Sure. If you would, let's look at California. Let's look at other - let's look at states that are happening right now. I think if you look at the Trust Act that Governor Brown signed last year, you're starting to see a lot of states taking care of immigration issues by themselves because the federal government and Congress and President Obama, they still haven't come to an agreement. And what you're seeing - just look at California and look at other places - it's going to be happening in New York, it's going to be happening in Illinois. We're talking about, you know - those are issues that are hitting home when we're talking about separation of families under record deportations by the Department of Homeland Security of which is part of the Obama administration. Latino voters are seeing through that. And, you know...
MARTIN: But where's the focus of the activism? I mean, are there specific races in which you feel that this voting block, having emerged and having been energized and motivated by some specific issues, is going to specifically be felt?
VARELA: Yeah. I think if you look at what happened in 2013 with Fast for Families that happened on the mall in November calling out both Republicans and Democrats in a lot of ways. I don't know if you recall, but when activists actually occupied, quote-unquote, occupied Congress on the last day of Congress calling for immigration reform, it's not going to go away. And I think Latino voters are seeing sort of the problems from both parties, and that's what we've been covering for the last three years. And it's the biggest issue that's going to be happening in 2014. I'm absolutely convinced.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about some of the stories to look for in the year ahead. We are speaking with Julio Ricardo Varela, that's who was speaking just now. He's the editor of LatinoRebels.com. Also with us, Brendan Costello, co-host of the radio program The Largest Minority, heard on WBAI in New York.
And also with us, political commentator Jason Johnson. So, Brendan Costello, you know, a lot of the issues we've talked about speaking to the disabled community speak to lawsuits and they're specific to access to specific institutions that are enjoyed or services that are enjoyed by the able-bodied that are not equally available to people living with disabilities. But what about in the political realm? I mean, you do have - you have a new mayor, Bill de Blasio in New York. And a lot of progressives are very excited about his election. He won with a very wide margin. I understand that you're not as thrilled with him so far.
COSTELLO: Well, myself, personally, I'm willing to give him a little bit more time, 'cause it's been less than a week. And it usually take me a little bit more than that time to get my act together. But there are a number of different concerns. I mean, in part, because again, going back to the taxi issue, which I'm not as fixated on as other people are, but...
MARTIN: But of all of the major world cities, a lot of major cities - just to clarify for a lot of people, New York taxis are a major part of the transportation network for a lot of people there. And other major world cities like London, new taxis added to the fleet have to be wheelchair accessible.
MARTIN: And that's not the law in New York, as I understand it.
COSTELLO: Yeah, with the new mayor, he did take - apparently he took a lot of campaign donations from the yellow taxi lobby, as it were. So there is some - there is concern about that. There is concern largely - and this goes - I think this is a great parallel to the immigration issue - that politicians are, you know, claim to be progressive and check off a lot of boxes for different groups or different issues, but then some issues don't quite get that thing.
And that a lot of times happens with access issues, that the people who qualify on every other liberal or progressive or whatever it is thing don't quite understand or don't quite make it to because we are still - even though we might be a largest or a large minority - we are not as organized as a voting block and we may not be as politically significant in that way so that a lot of times, our issues are not addressed as fully.
MARTIN: Jason Johnson, what about you? Are there other priority issues or other issues - sleeper issues, I think is the word that comes to mind - that you think might surface in a way that we do not now expect but that you're paying attention to?
JOHNSON: Well, yeah. And I, you know, was thinking about this before the show that predicting what's going to happen in the year is like talking about the Super Bowl. Everybody ends up wrong.
JOHNSON: We're never actually right...
JOHNSON: ...About who we think.
MARTIN: And then we have a lot of fun embarrassing you with the prediction we shouldn't have asked you to make, which we then ask you to make again.
MARTIN: Point taken.
JOHNSON: So, you know, with that in mind, I actually do think that, for example, this new push by President Obama about income inequality. I actually think that's going to be a bit of a sleeper issue. I think what we've already heard from the Republican Party is they want to bring back social issues in 2014. They want to talk about abortion. They want to talk about gay marriage. They want to talk about morality issues, again.
And I think the president is going to bring up these ideas of income inequality and see if that lights a fire under people again. I mean, even with the economy improving, as we saw, most of the polls at the end of last year, people are still very, very, very anxious. And so I think this moral versus economic equality argument may be sort of undergirding most of the arguments we're going to have in politics over the next year. And who wins that argument is going to have a lot to do with who announces and when for 2016.
MARTIN: Julio Ricardo Varela, what about you? Are there sleeper issues that you think we are not paying attention to now but we will be? I noticed you're also very interested in the marijuana law changes on your website.
VARELA: Oh yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: You have been covering that closely.
VARELA: Well, I agree with Jason on the income inequality. One of the things about the marijuana debate that I think the U.S. mainstream English language media is overlooking is a relationship with Mexico. We're talking a lot about the demand, but we're not talking a lot about the supply. And one of the things that's coming out, at least out of our circle, is this discussion coming out of bloggers and Spanish language outlets talking about what it means when the United States is promoting or is kind of saying that it's good to - you know, weed is good now. But then, you're talking about a war on drugs in Mexico where there is, you know, a hundred thousand people that have died since 2005.
And there's a very active movement or discussion in Mexico talking about sort of what could be viewed as hypocrisy by the United States. So we're going to be following that a lot. But I also agree with Jason about income inequality. That is one issue that I think is universal that is going to be defining a lot of the national dialogue in politics. And we're going to be once again looking at wedge issues. And I do believe that that is a big wedge issue.
MARTIN: Brendan, you said you're not as obsessed with the taxi issue as some in your area of expertise. But that's the final thought I wanted to ask from you. Is there a sleeper issue that you wish we'd be paying more attention to that we perhaps are not now paying as much attention to and we should be? You want to focus our attention on?
VARELA: Oh, for me?
MARTIN: No, Brendan. I was asking Brendan.
VARELA: Oh, I'm sorry, Brendan. I'm sorry.
MARTIN: I'm giving him the final thought.
VARELA: Oh yeah.
COSTELLO: I appreciate that. I don't have one specific thing. I do think that generally speaking, that - because what we do on our show is - one of my goals is to try to connect the ways in which issues that may be specific to disability are also played out in other things. Certainly, for example, affordable health care and marriage equality, I think is something that I think will start to come to the fore. I think culturally, I think to some extent some of these issues are going to be more - people will become more aware of them. But, for example, marriage equality is seen by a lot of people just in terms of, you know, same-sex partners and, you know, gay marriage versus straight marriage.
But there is also a thing if you're person with a disability, getting married sometimes is actually almost prohibited by the way in which your care and the way in which your health care is maintained. And your - like your insurance - based on if you have a partner or not. And sometimes you can't get married because if you get married, neither of you can afford to survive basically or maintain the care that you need to be alive.
COSTELLO: And I think that that may - generally speaking though, I think that at least for people with disabilities is just - I think, hopefully, you'll just be seeing more of us and hearing more diverse voices from us in the cultural landscape.
MARTIN: Brendan Costello is co-host of The Largest Minority radio program on WBAI in New York. He focuses on issues of particular concern to people living with disabilities. And political commentator Jason Johnson was also with us from New York and Julio Ricardo Varela of LatinoRebels.com joined us by phone from Boston. Thank you all so much for joining us we appreciate it.
VARELA: It was a pleasure.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
COSTELLO: Thank you very much, Michel.
MARTIN: And we'd like to welcome our newest station, Minnesota Public Radio to the TELL ME MORE family. Thank you for joining us. Stay warm. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.