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Q&A

Arnold Ventures’ New Leader of Advocacy Sees a Way to Cut Through the Partisan Gridlock

A veteran of presidential campaigns, Kevin Madden takes a bipartisan approach to reform. He talks about his new role, why he won't miss life on the campaign trail, and the songs that have inspired real change.

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Veteran communications strategist Kevin Madden is well-known on Capitol Hill, having served as a senior strategist and spokesman on three presidential campaigns and, more recently, as a CNN political commentator. He recently brought his public affairs expertise to Arnold Ventures, where he started last month as the philanthropy’s Executive Vice President of Advocacy, and if you follow him on Twitter, you might be aware of his other passion: music. We sat down with Madden to talk about the issues he will work on in his new role, how to cut through partisan gridlock, and the 2020 presidential race.

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Arnold Ventures

Why did you decide to join Arnold Ventures?

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Kevin Madden

It was really a combination of three things: the people, the culture, and the mission. There are really smart and passionate people here with high levels of policy expertise, blended with a passion for change. This has an incredibly positive effect on the overall culture existing across the organization. Everyone is very insightful but also highly collaborative, inviting expertise and an outside set of eyes when it comes to solving problems. Lastly, the mission is clear to every member across the organization. There’s no nibbling around the edges of issues; we’re taking on very big public policy challenges and developing bold solutions. I was excited to be asked to be a part of that.

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Arnold Ventures

As a veteran of Washington, D.C., do you think Arnold Ventures’ focus on evidence-based policy reforms has the potential to cut through partisan gridlock?

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Kevin Madden

The most important thing we can do is realize there’s a much broader American public out there that’s focused on fundamental reforms and changes that are going to impact their lives. That’s true whether it’s criminal justice, health care, higher education, or public finance. Once we’ve developed a strong body of research about what reforms work, we need to go out there and communicate the political benefits of those reforms to policymakers and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A big part of that is how you personalize and localize the issues. If we only argue these things through a partisan lens — this is good for Democrats, or this is good for Republicans — we won’t make much progress. But when we communicate that this is going to have a specific impact on the people who sent you here to Congress, I think you convert more people.

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Arnold Ventures

What will your role be as Executive Vice President for Advocacy, and what are some of the issues you’re going to be working on?

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Kevin Madden

Organizations that approach advocacy in a situational manner or have their policy and communications efforts in separate verticals ultimately face more challenges. My main focus will be building an advocacy infrastructure that integrates our most valuable assets — the policy team, the communications platforms, the leadership team — and enhance our impact on the most important policy debates.

Probably the biggest priority right now is gun violence research, given how it’s come to the forefront of the national conversation. We’re championing the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, which is a great example of how Arnold Ventures can have an impact on a major debate while bringing the different sides together to achieve important reforms. For too long the debate on how to combat gun violence has been driven by those who are only looking at it through an extreme partisan lens. Our goal is to foster a conversation informed not by the most extreme voices, but by data and research. Let’s listen to the people in law enforcement, listen to the veterans community, listen to communities around the country.

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Arnold Ventures

One area where there seems to be a lot of bipartisan cooperation is criminal justice reform.

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Kevin Madden

We have a template for success there with the FIRST STEP Act, which Arnold Ventures was very involved with. If you look at the other issues we’re working on — prescription drug pricing reform, higher education accountability — those are also areas where we can bring Democrats and Republicans together. A lot of these reforms are also taking place at the state level. Arnold Ventures works closely with policymakers and lawmakers at both the state and federal level. We work in state capitals across the country — we can avoid being captured by the Beltway mentality.

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Arnold Ventures

On a more personal note, you’ve worked on three presidential campaigns. Will you miss being involved in the 2020 race?

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Kevin Madden

No, because I’ve learned you can have a tremendous impact on the public debate beyond working on campaigns for elected office. I learned a lot working on campaigns and living the campaign life, which involves 18-hour days for stretches of up to two years. My focus now, though, is taking the national campaign experience, the Capitol Hill experience, and the lessons learned over the last decade working in the private sector and applying them toward this new endeavor with Arnold Ventures. When we do our job right, we have this great opportunity to elevate a policy agenda that maximizes opportunity and minimizes injustice while ensuring that candidates for elected office — whether that’s the presidency or even at the local level — gravitate towards the ideas and issues we’re promoting because voters care about them. So, I won’t miss the 2020 race because I’ll still be plenty busy working with my Arnold Ventures colleagues to make sure our ideas and solutions are on the ballot.

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Arnold Ventures

Anyone following you on Twitter knows you have strong opinions about music and don’t shy away from answering those viral questions about albums and artists that make the rounds. We have one: Arnold Ventures is about investing in sustainable change — what are your top three songs in history that inspired real change?

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Kevin Madden

3. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — The lyrics captured a nation reflecting on and struggling with a great deal of societal change; it ultimately became an anthem for many of those leading the way.

2. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” — It’s been 30 years since the release of Spike Lee’s epic “Do The Right Thing,” and there’s no doubt this Public Enemy song was a clarion call for many communities who felt powerless and without a voice.

1. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” — The song sold millions of copies while leading to the Live Aid concerts that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for famine relief while also activating the consciences of millions across the globe.