CEDAR RAPIDS — Dale Todd had a difficult relationship with his dad, but he still sees him as one of his biggest role models.
Ray Todd grew up dirt poor in the South and battled personal demons throughout adulthood. Father and son never really connected until it was too late, Dale Todd recalled. But he knew he was a good man. He worked hard each day for the city of Chicago, required his kids to attend school and never let the three Todd brothers run wild.
Ray Todd, who was black, once chased a man three blocks and brought him back to apologize to his mom, Mary Lou, who was white, after calling her a racial slur.
“He had a work ethic and he had this sense of what was right is right and wrong is wrong,” said Todd, a Cedar Rapids City Council member and vice president of Hatch Development. “If there was a problem in the neighborhood, he wouldn’t run from it. He would run toward it.”
Dale Todd has tried to emulate that ethos and work ethic, which has helped him emerge as one of the area’s longest active black leaders. Todd was the first black man elected to Cedar Rapids City Council — as parks commissioner — serving from 1998 to 2002.
Nearly 20 years later, in 2017, Todd became just the second black man elected as a member of City Council.
“When I first ran, it was like, ‘Watch out. Who are you?’” Todd said. “I think they felt threatened.
“The reality is, I’ve been here for 40 years. People know me. You are judged by the work you do, not by the sound bites you make ... . The last election, they had a clear sense of who I was. They elected me to get some things done that need to get done around here.”
Todd grew up in the 1960s in Woodlawn, a poor and predominantly black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. It was a difficult time, and having interracial parents didn’t help.
But his parents were active in giving back to the community, which is something Todd has carried with him.
“We never had much when we were growing up, but we knew we had more than some of the other people in the neighborhood,” Todd said. “Because of that, we always believed that there was a moral obligation to dig in and help others that don’t have the same opportunities that you do.”
Todd moved to Cedar Rapids in 1974 to attend Coe College, sight unseen, based on descriptions of the area from people close to him.
Todd, now married to Sara and with a son, Adam, took on leadership roles in the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association in the 1990s. A house at 15th Street SE and Bever Avenue SE Todd would see each day on his way to work triggered his involvement.
“What I didn’t realize was it was an open market for crack cocaine and the violence associated with that,” Todd said.
“I drew parallels with what I saw in Chicago. Lo and behold, I was seeing it here in Cedar Rapids in my neighborhood and I started getting involved.”
Todd has served on a variety of boards and commissions, including those supporting disabilities and mental health. He has worked to upgrade city pools, parks and trails, pushed social justice and neighborhood stabilization, and has championed the revitalization of Cedar Lake.
Monica Vernon, a former City Council member and political candidate, met Todd when she was 16 and he was a student at Coe. She recalled he sported an Afro — his head is clean shaven now — and he was full of ideas, much as he is in the present day, she said.
He was a “thinker about how the world should be and a dreamer about how the world could be,” she said.
She described him as persuasive, smart and driven, and attributes his success to his ability to break down barriers as he forms relationships and expands his network by rallying people around goals.
“All humans have barriers when you are getting to know people,” Vernon said. “He breaks those down really fast and he keeps his eye on prize.”
Todd, who is active in Democratic politics, said Iowa has become a different place from when he first arrived — which is part of why he ran for City Council again. An increase in bigotry, hate, race baiting and anti-immigration fever has exposed “an ugly streak when it comes to matters of race,” he said.
Some may “talk a good game” in public but still aren’t comfortable with people who don’t look like them, he said. Tough conversations are needed when it comes to race, such as about black-on-black crime, criminal justice reform, and police accountability, he said.
“You have to maintain a level of hope,” Todd said.
“If you are frustrated, this is the time to get involved. It’s not the time to sit on the sidelines.”
• Comments: (319) 398-8310; email@example.com
• Title: Cedar Rapids District 3 City Council member and vice president of Hatch Development
• Past title: Parks commissioner
• Age: 61
• Birthplace: Chicago.
• Role models: Ray Todd, Linn County medical examiner Percy Harris, Shelby Humbles, Cedar Rapids NAACP finance committee chairman; and Harold Thompson, who shined shoes downtown
• One piece of advice: Read newspapers and pay attention to current events to connect to what is going on in your city and learn your history.