Nino Amato is the voice for his own generation’s looming crisis
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Nino Amato is holding court at Marigold Kitchen on Pinckney Street, eating a nutritious bowl of yogurt with fruit, drinking a glass of water, and making the pancake, sausage and pastry-eating diners nearby feel guilty.
“I need to lose some weight,” says Amato, who has been the president and executive director of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups since January 2010, and has been the president, executive director, manager, CEO, chairman, regent and basic
pooh-bah of seemingly everything else in Madison at one time or another for the last four decades.
Equal parts businessman and social activist, power broker and consensus builder, Amato gets mileage with self-deprecation. The truth is that the fifty-nine-year-old Amato looks as fit, trim and tan as he did in 1977, when he was a first-term Madison city council member who nearly defeated incumbent mayor Paul Soglin. And Amato still has, quite possibly, the best head of hair in all of Dane County.
Amato schedules a lot of meetings in restaurants for a man with an aversion to calories, but it is only because he feels so at home in that environment. He says he learned most of the important things he now knows while working at Amato’s Holiday House Restaurant on Park Street, the business his parents, Sam and Roselyn, owned and operated for forty-three years. From his preteen years through college and graduate school, he was a busboy, dishwasher, waiter, bartender and manager. Restaurants give Nino Amato a home-field
Amato’s Holiday House closed in 1991—the space is now occupied by La Hacienda—but for most of the time his parents ran the restaurant it was a hangout for many of Madison’s political movers and shakers. Tommy Thompson, Tony Earl, Pat Lucey, Martin Schreiber and Warren Knowles were all known to spend time there. Democratic Assembly Whip George Molinaro of Kenosha held meetings at back tables. It is said that the deal to create the UW System was brokered there.
“I started bartending at Amato’s when I was fourteen,” Amato says. “My dad just said to me, ‘Listen. Listen and learn.’ And that’s what I did.”
These days Amato is practicing his listening skills and holding a lot of meetings at the Monona Garden Family Restaurant near South Towne because of its proximity to the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups headquarters on Dairy Drive. Amato oversees the work of twenty CWAG employees and coordinates the activities of hundreds of volunteers and nine regional district governing boards throughout Wisconsin.
Founded in 1978, CWAG is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, statewide organization. Amato and his crew work with state and county agencies and nonprofit organizations to advocate for patient-centered care, prescription drug reform, consumer protection, and other measures that impact older adults and people with disabilities. CWAG also lends free legal assistance to people sixty years and older, focusing
especially on guardianship rights, elder financial abuse and and consumer fraud. In the time that Amato has become its president and executive director, CWAG organized a well-publicized campaign to reform prescription drug costs statewide. It has also initiated the Wisconsin Campaign for Better Care and put together the Blue Ribbon Citizen Task Force for Patient Centered Care to help lead it.
CWAG’s creation grew out of a rally at which some 4,500 seniors and their advocates marched on the state capitol to call on the state government to fund senior centers, home health care services, senior nutrition programs and transportation assistance agencies, and to decrease property taxes. Amato remembers attending that rally in March 1977, being inspired by the activists, and incorporating the words he heard into his mayoral race. It was the month between when he placed first in the crowded mayoral primary and lost the two-man runoff to Soglin.
“Losing that election was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Amato says.
If he had become Madison’s mayor back then, his future as a politician would have been etched, and he might have lost the flexibility he has enjoyed throughout a career that has been as varied as it has been successful. Amato has been a health care executive with Meriter Health Services and a member of the University of Wisconsin Hospital Authority Board. He was president and CEO of Forward Wisconsin under Tommy Thompson. He was a senior vice president with Wisconsin Power and Light, and president and executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group. He was a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents and president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board of Directors. He has been the proprietor of Nino Amato and Associates for the last decade, traveling across the nation dispensing management advice to health-care organizations of all shapes and sizes.
Billy Feitlinger is the executive director of the Wisconsin Association for Retired Americans, an organization made up of retirees who are or were union members. He has been friends with Amato since Amato’s city council days, and he says it is Amato’s gift for creating and maintaining strong relationships that will help him the most in his work for CWAG.
“Nino was considered one of the most conservative members of the council, but the two people he was closest to were Rich Gross and Mike Sack, who were two of the most liberal,” Feitlinger says. “He has all of this experience and knowledge now, and even back then he had the kind of personality that bridged gaps and brought people together. He can disagree and maintain his relationships.”;
Yes, Amato brings a lot to the table. And as it turns out, the timing may not have been better. To hear the experts tell it, Wisconsin’s aging and disabled populations are going to need all of Amato’s skills and experience just to survive in the next couple decades.
CWAG CEO and governing board chair Mike Linton says that with baby boomers entering the ranks of the retired his organization is, for the first time, dealing with four separate generations at once.
“We find more and more that we are working with elderly people and their retired children at the same time,” Linton says.
The collection of nonprofit groups that make up the Wisconsin Way coalition point to the state’s changing age demographics as the top reason the state needs to quickly figure out new ways to fund and deliver public services and develop the economy. With the largest generation in U.S. history entering retirement age, and everyone from every generation living longer, we face an uncertainty about the future that quickly starts to look a lot like fear.