Dale Todd would rather not talk about himself. Sitting in Parlor City Pub and Eatery, one of his favorite places to grab lunch, he matter-of-factly acknowledged making history in 1997, when he became the first black person elected to the city commission in Cedar Rapids (the commission was the pre-2006 version of the city council), but he’ll talk at length about how NewBo City Market across the street is helping new businesses grow.
It’s not the standard, well-practiced politician’s patter. The 61-year-old Todd credits working as a bartender while he was a student at Coe College with teaching him how to talk to people. The experience still shows — his speaking style is casual, candid and occasionally profane.
Todd feels his barroom-born style has helped him connect to voters. When he decided to return to politics and ran for the District 3 seat on the Cedar Rapids City Council in 2017, Todd won with 71 percent of the vote. But it didn’t help him in 2001 when he ran for reelection to the city commission. Todd had been targeted by conservative groups because, two years earlier, he’d voted to expand the city’s anti-discrimination laws to cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“People were just starting to come out the closet then in Cedar Rapids,” he said. “But there was still a relatively sizable amount of people that were still scared. The reality was they could easily lose their job.”
The proposal to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians attracted angry opposition, especially from conservative Christian groups, as soon as it was proposed in 1998.
“It was ugly, right away,” Todd recalled. “We received death threats, we had to put security measures in place at city hall for the first time.”
Similar proposals had recently been defeated in Des Moines, Davenport and Sioux City. At the time, only two cities in Iowa — Iowa City and Ames — prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Todd, Mayor Lee Clancey and Public Safety Commissioner Nancy Evans voted in favor banning discrimination. The other two members of the city commission, Finance Commissioner Ole Munson and Streets Commissioner Don Thomas, voted against it.
All three of the measure’s supporters would be voted out of office within two years.
Evans was defeated in the 1999 election. Clancey and Todd both lost their reelection bids in 2001.
Todd said he knew it was likely his vote against discrimination would end his career as commissioner of parks and public buildings, but he didn’t let that influence him.
“I thought about my parents,” he said, when asked about his 1999 vote.
“My parents were from the South, and it wasn’t legal for them to be together there,” Todd explained. “Here was my dad, he was an African-American, and my mom, who loved this guy, was this Irish-Dutch woman. I didn’t realize the real struggle that my parents went through until almost before they died.”
“It wasn’t until right before my mother passed, that she told me she’d actually been put in a mental institution for two weeks,” Todd said. It happened after her parents found out she was in love with a black man. “It was sort of a ‘scared straight’ deal. It was her parents in conjunction with the police that did this.”
“Luckily, she talked to a psychiatrist, who decided there was nothing wrong with her. He had her released and told her to be careful.”
“Next thing, my parents hopped on a train to Chicago.”
After they married, Ray and Mary Lou Todd settled in the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. “It was kind of a rough neighborhood,” Todd explained.
“Chicago at that time — ’53, ’54 — was hopping,” he said. “They were hanging out at this place called Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, which was this cultural icon in Hyde Park.”
The regulars at Woodlawn Tap were a mixture of people from the University of Chicago and its Hyde Park neighborhood, and Woodlawn residents. The Todds met a lot of politically active people through Woodlawn Tap.
Their church in Woodlawn, First Presbyterian, was a center of the civil rights movement in Chicago. Todd’s parents became active in the movement. It was something that was always in the background of Todd’s childhood.
“I actually marched with King once,” Todd recalled.
The Todds took then 9-year-old Dale to a rally organized by the Chicago Freedom Movement at Soldier Field on July 10, 1966. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a famous speech at the rally (“This day we must declare our own Emancipation Proclamation”), calling for an end to housing discrimination in the city. After the rally, King led a march to Chicago City Hall, where he delivered a letter demanding the city adopt an “open housing” policy.
“To be honest, at the time, I didn’t really get the importance of it,” Todd said. “All I was thinking [as a 9-year-old] is that it’s hotter than shit out here.”
Todd’s own neighborhood had been affected by Chicago’s de facto housing segregation.
“Woodlawn was changing,” he recalled. “It was going from predominantly a white neighborhood to an African-American neighborhood.”
Poverty increased, and so did violence as gangs expanded their territories in the neighborhood.
“We lived in an apartment building, but it was like our block was insulated from the violence and the poverty,” Todd said. “If you went two blocks in either direction, you were right in the middle of a warzone.”
“I was lucky because my parents both worked,” he continued. “We weren’t poor; we weren’t rich. We didn’t have a car, but I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. I had good schools.”
Cedar Rapids wasn’t an obvious destination for a graduating senior from the South Side of Chicago in the ’70s, but Todd’s mother had friends with connections to the city who encouraged him to consider Coe.
“There was some culture shock,” Todd said of going from Chicago, which had approximately 3.4 million people at the time, to Cedar Rapids, which had less than 111,000.
“I showed up and I thought I was cool, because I had a DeKalb Seed hat,” he said, smiling broadly at the memory. “But I didn’t know a damned thing about rural Iowa, or even Cedar Rapids.”
He learned. Friends he made at Coe would take him to their family farms or the small towns they grew up in. Todd slowly settled into the very different atmosphere of Cedar Rapids.
“On Tuesdays, my classes started late, so I’d ride my bike down by Cedar Lake,” he said. “I fell in love with that area. Today, I’m championing this $20 million project to revitalize the lake and to build a pedestrian bridge.”
Even before returning to city government last year, Todd was working on this project, as president of the Friends of Cedar Lake. And it wasn’t the only south-side improvement he’s been involved with in recent years. In 2009, Todd helped found the Southside Investment Board, which is aimed at promoting economic growth in the New Bohemia area.
Todd is happy to take a visitor on a tour of the restaurants in NewBo Market and describe every stall in detail, while chatting with the people behind the counters, but he’s less interested in talking about his role in developing the market.
“At my age, I’m not really interested in taking credit for things,” Todd said. “I just want to get shit done.”
“When I was running in 2017, the guys at EduSkate [Board Shop in the NewBo District] wanted to make T-shirts that said, ‘Dale Todd: He gets shit done.’ My wife, Sara, vetoed that idea.”
“She’s an angel,” Todd said about his wife of 25 years. “I don’t know why she puts up with me.”
Todd ended up going with a more restrained, “Dale Todd gets stuff done,” as a campaign theme.
“I already had a track record [from his time as parks and public buildings commissioner], so people knew what they were getting when they voted for me,” Todd said.
During those four years, Todd was responsible for introducing an impressive number of recreational innovations in Cedar Rapids.
“I made providing opportunities for all kids a big part of my campaign [in 1997],” Todd said. The lack of recreation in the city was something Todd became very aware of in the 1990s, during the height of the crack and gang problems in Cedar Rapids.
“I soon realized something — a lot of these kids didn’t have shit to do,” Todd said. “There basically was, and still is to a degree, two levels of recreation in Cedar Rapids: one for kids who have the access and the means and one for those how don’t have either.”
“I called it ‘recreational apartheid.’ I got a lot of pushback for using that term.”
“But at the time, the city only had one basketball court, and it was in a shitty little park on the river,” Todd said. “Basically, nobody knew it existed.”
During Todd’s four years in office, 13 public basketball courts were built around the city.
“Seven miles of trails, 27 new playgrounds, a skate park, an ice arena, a new baseball pad. I closed all the old splash pads and we built new ones,” Todd said, quickly running through a list of projects launched while he was in charge of Cedar Rapids’ parks. “A 20-field soccer complex, and we built driving ranges at all three of the city’s golf courses, so people could learn to play golf.”
“That was probably one of the reasons I got booted out. We did too much, too fast.”
But Todd said he realizes there’s still a lot to be done. And that’s why decided to run for the city council, even though he was enjoying his life as a private citizen with Sara and their 19-year-old son Adam, and his work creating and managing low- and mixed-income housing as vice president for development at Hatch Development Group.
“I’ve been here for 40 years, and I’ve seen some change, and I’ve seen some things that haven’t changed,” Todd said. “I’m at this great place in my life, where I have a boss who respects my ideas and lets me do my work. And also I don’t give a shit about what people think about me.
“That’s given me sort of this freedom to really mix it up a little bit more than maybe I would have 20 years ago. Simply because with age, you would hope there comes some wisdom, but what you do realize is there are a lot of serious changes that still need to happen. And we don’t have time to waste.”
Paul Brennan appreciated Dale Todd taking him on a tour of the NewBo District on Feb. 4. Despite the snow storm. And all the ice. And the sub-zero wind chill. Paul Brennan would also like winter to stop wintering. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 258.