Carole Groom was in line buying groceries when she heard a cross voice.
Another customer wanted to know – asking no one in particular but wanting to share his views – who the so-and-so was who did away with plastic shopping bags.
Here in downtown San Mateo, before plastic bag bans were common, a skirmish in the country’s culture wars over free choice (paper, plastic, reusable?) was spilling out near the gum and candy.
“That’s me. I did that,” Groom piped up, she recounted later. “I voted to ban plastic bags because it’s good for the planet and if you would like to discuss it further, we can.”
As a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Groom has developed a reputation for taking stances not necessarily immediately popular – and the fortitude to take whatever heat may result.
It’s a thread that stitches together a career in public service that spans decades.
Today, near the end of her third and final term, Groom’s legacy is coming into focus. Take a look at seven areas where her impact will be felt long into the future.
1. The Big Lift
The Big Lift launched in 2013 to raise the reading levels of young learners in areas of San Mateo County where the need is greatest for affordable quality preschool and expanded educational supports.
Despite San Mateo County being one of the most affluent counties in the nation, roughly four in 10 third graders could not read proficiently by third grade. And as decades of research has found, children who start behind are likely to stay behind.
Working with the San Mateo County Office of Education and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, The Big Lift now serves about 3,000 children annually. The Big Lift is built upon four "Key Pillars of Success" -- high-quality preschool, inspiring summer programs, family engagement and improving school attendance.
“Carole Groom’s legacy of supporting children, youth and families will be felt for generations to come in San Mateo County,” said Nancy Magee, San Mateo County superintendent of schools.
“Her advocacy and leadership in launching The Big Lift initiative has resulted in thousands of children and families accessing high quality early education opportunities and learning, setting them up for long-term success,” Magee said. “Carole’s impact in this work is immeasurable and demonstrates the truest expression of legacy.”
2. Fresh Voices/New Perspectives
Since the January 2009 day Groom took office, she has pushed for expanding opportunities for residents to get involved in decision making. She reshaped and refreshed the County’s Civics 101 Academy and regularly (some may say relentlessly) encouraged people to apply to County advisory boards and commissions.
“Working with Supervisor Groom it was clear she truly valued the youth voice in our county and genuinely believed we could have an impact on our communities,” said Sarah Pistorino, a member of the Youth Commission for four years who now studies political science at American University in Washington, D.C.
“On a personal level, Supervisor Groom gave me numerous opportunities to be involved with local government which fostered my love of political science and public service,” Pistorino said. “Working with a government official who genuinely respects and values your opinion when you’re in high school is rare, but that was my experience working with Supervisor Groom. I can confidently say I would not be where I am without the experiences and lessons I learned from Supervisor Groom.”
3. Health Care
San Mateo County is one of the few California counties that operates a public hospital: San Mateo Medical Center and its network of clinics. Together, these form the core of the County's safety net, and Groom has long provided leadership and guidance to ensure the Peninsula’s most vulnerable residents have access to quality care.
"Carole never forget her desire to improve the lives of those in need," said Margaret Taylor, a former director of County Health who met Groom some 30 years ago. "She cares deeply about health care, education, housing and equality for all."
Groom has served for many years on the board of directors of San Mateo Medical Center, which operates a network of clinics in Daly City, South San Francisco, Half Moon Bay, Redwood City and San Mateo. Together, the purpose "is to open doors of excellence in healthcare to the community...."
As Groom has said, "Healthcare, public safety, transportation and safety net services know no boundaries."
Today, the County is undertaking a $177 million renovation of the San Mateo Medical Center campus, work that will continue to improve the patient and staff experience.
4. Road Revolution
The idea is simple: Streets belong to everyone so close or restrict vehicle access on a few to allow people to walk, run, bike, glide, dance or enjoy however they may.
More than a decade ago Groom brought together leaders from cities, the state and parks agencies as well as community groups and others for Active San Mateo County and Streets Alive! Parks Alive! The initiatives have gained and lost momentum year to year, a fact that has not lessened her drive.
“When I worked on Active San Mateo County, I was highly impressed by the leaders, Carole Groom and (former Health Chief) Jean Fraser,” said Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, a Canadian organization that works to make cities healthier.
“They clearly understood that using public spaces like streets and parks for recreation, was more than fun and games,” he said. “It improved mental and physical health, the environment, happiness. Supervisor Groom had grit, passion and perseverance.”
5. Disaster Preparedness
Fires, earthquakes, tsunami warnings, severe weather and power outages have a way of reminding all of us that the best way to prepare is now, before things go wrong.
Each year, Groom is the lead organizer of the County’s Disaster Preparedness Day, held annually at the San Mateo County Event Center.
This family-friendly event (the goal is to inform, not frighten) features demonstrations on first aid and how to prepare a budget-friendly emergency kit, among many others. Kids can check out fire trucks and other emergency vehicles and meet first responders. The event offers free admission and free parking as a way to encourage attendance -- and preparedness.
6. Making Waves
“It’s access. It’s access to the beach. The public of California owns the beach. We must let them go to the ocean.”
This is vintage Groom – summing up the 67,186-word California Coastal Act (more than double the number of words in the play Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest) in 22 concise words delivered to an audience of Big Sur residents concerned about the impact of tourism. Groom was appointed in 2012 as a Central Coast representative on the California Coastal Commission.
“Carole was one of our anchors on the Coastal Commission,” said Donne Brownsey, chair of the commission. “She listens to what everyone has to say and she loves to hear from members of the public…. She asks concise, meaningful questions and she has a true love of being a public servant.”
As locally elected official, Groom earned credibility with representatives from coastal cities and counties with her knowledge gained from San Mateo County’s experiences with land-use issues from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.
“She was a strong proponent of engaging local governments in commission policy and educating local governments,” Brownsey said. “She was crucial in helping entities to start planning around sea level rise and looking at vulnerabilities and deciding on approaches to mitigate its effects.”
7. Accelerating Clean Energy
Since its 2016 inception, Peninsula Clean Energy through 2021 has helped reduce nearly 1.7 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions, an amount equivalent to avoiding the use of more than 191 million gallons of gas.
Groom is one of the founding members of Peninsula Clean Energy, a public, locally controlled electricity provider. It provides residential, commercial and municipal customers with energy that is 100 percent carbon-free and the choice of having 50 percent to 100 percent of their electricity supplied from clean, renewable sources at competitive rates.