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Executive Q&A: Nino Amato is accustomed to rocking the boat

Executive Q&A: Nino Amato is accustomed to rocking the boat

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(A.J.) Nino Amato has made a career out of attracting political lightning.

For example, in 2004, he lost his seat on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents after criticizing fellow board members for privately raising UW executives’ pay at the same time they were approving hefty tuition increases for students. Amato held the regent’s position because he was chair of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board. Democratic Gov. James Doyle replaced Amato on the technical college board, and Amato was gone as a regent.

More than a decade later, Amato said he would do the same thing — only more so. “It’s nearly 10 years ago I was a UW Regent, advocating for increased state support to our UW System, so we could, once again, make a university college education affordable,” said Amato, who now leads the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups (CWAG), a lobbying and service group.

“I would not only continue in this same capacity, but would bring together a bipartisan partnership of college students, their families and former legislative leaders to make a college education affordable and more accessible to all Wisconsin residents and taxpayers.”

It’s been six years since Amato, part of a well-known Italian restaurant family, took over at CWAG.

Q: What are the high points?

A: CWAG and our coalition partners’ ability to bring together the Democrat and GOP leadership in the state Senate and Assembly to overturn Gov. Scott Walker’s unwise and unwarranted state budget changes to Wisconsin’s Low-Cost Prescription Drug Program — SeniorCare.

Then, there was the legislative passage of our state’s “Silver Alert” bill (Amber Alert for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s), working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which overturned Gov. Walker’s politically motivated decision to cap on Wisconsin’s Long-Term Care Program — Family Care; and CWAG’s ongoing initiative to make the University of Wisconsin and Technical College Systems more affordable and accessible to Wisconsin students.

Q: Has the organization changed greatly since you took over?

A: Over the last six years, CWAG has been proactive in building bipartisan partnerships, within the state Legislature, during this period of “toxic politics,” which has resulted in the passage of legislation that improves the quality of life for our elderly, people with disabilities and children.

Q: You have lived in Madison all your life. What’s better about it now — and what’s worse?

A: Madison has become a culturally rich community with families moving to our great city from throughout the world, and at the same time, tragically has become one of the worst communities for racial disparities in America, and we must reverse this human tragedy and not simply pay “political lip service” to these racial disparities.

Q: I understand you are now teaching as well. What are you teaching and where?

A: In addition to being the president and CEO of CWAG, I am teaching this semester at UW-Platteville: “Law, Women and Social Control,” “Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System,” and “Sustainable Renewable Energy Resources.”

Q: You are going to the Middle East shortly. What for?

A: To visit Israel and as a humanitarian volunteer in Mafraq, Jordan, to help refugee children and families from battle-torn Syria make a better life than what they left behind.

Q: You ran against Paul Soglin many years ago for mayor of Madison. Do you still have a hankering to be mayor?

A: I ran for elective office over 40 years ago and was honored by the voters to represent their neighborhoods on the Madison City Council and have since focused my time and professional expertise in many different ways — from successfully spearheading Madison’s first and only community pool with the generous donations from the Goodman brothers and finding solutions to prevent and track racial profiling as chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on Race Relations, to unifying the city and county’s health departments with my co-chair Mark Pocan to getting the UW Board of Regents to seamlessly allow the credit transfer of technical college credits to UW-Madison and other campuses as president of the Technical College System Board. So I continue to be an effective citizen advocate and have not considered running for public office in the near term.

Q: What was your favorite job?

A: Creating and sustaining jobs as president of Forward Wisconsin and as the UW director of technology transfer and business outreach were exceptionally interesting and rewarding.

Q: You seem to end up being a lightning rod in your many roles. How does that happen?

A: Any time a community leader “speaks truth to power” and challenges the status quo that will immediately create a lightning rod situation. The several times I have acted on behalf of Wisconsin citizens and taxpayers for unlawful and unethical conduct by government officials, the state attorney general successfully backed up my action and exposed their wrongful abuse of political power.


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