Skip to content


Heather Lewis reflects on journey serving on Norristown council

Norristown Municipal Council Vice President Heather Lewis (Rachel Ravina – MediaNews Group)
Norristown Municipal Council Vice President Heather Lewis (Rachel Ravina – MediaNews Group)

NORRISTOWN — Heather Lewis sat in a booth inside the Panera Bread in East Norriton as she sipped her chai tea latte on a cold December morning.

The 50-year-old outgoing Norristown councilwoman reflected on her eight years spent on the municipal governing board as her second and final term neared its end. It officially expires on Dec. 31. Reflecting on her experience, she said she felt “nostalgic” and “a little sad” about it.

“I had a lot of anxiety probably earlier on in this year,” Lewis said, “because I wasn’t done serving my community.”

Lewis has lived in Norristown for the last two decades, and expressed passion about the place she calls home. She devised a checklist at the start of 2023 with goals she aimed to accomplish before the end of her term. Along with recreation and overall development, Lewis focused on working toward how best to allocate the municipality’s share of federal COVID-19 relief dollars, furthering progress on the Norristown State Hospital property and improving the relationship with the Norristown Area School Board.

Lewis said the seven-member council “made some strides” over the past year, naming the new Norristown Police Department Chief Jacqueline Bailey-Davis and awarding a contract to develop the 68 acres of the former state hospital property into the Preserve at Stony Brook.

“I think it’s phenomenal. I am so, so happy,” Lewis said, adding that “the one that we chose had such a forethought, in-depth concern and care not only for the development but the community of Norristown that it impacted.”

‘Agent of change’

A native of Ambler, Lewis ended up to the county seat by way of Lansdale. Lewis’ family home burnt down when she was in the first grade and she moved to Lansdale, later graduating from North Penn High School in 1991.

Lewis never imagined herself having a career in politics, but community service was in her blood, she said, having a strong “lineage of being a servant leader.”

Her grandmother was president of the local VFW and her father was a little league coach.

“They always were in the community giving back and helping and so … I mean it certainly wasn’t something that I thought about like I wanted, (I) just kind of gravitated toward (it),” she said.

Lewis has had experience working as a social worker and advocate running the Reuniting Family Bail Fund, but her journey to public service began in a Lansdale hair salon where she worked for 18 years, first as a receptionist and then as a hairdresser.

Lewis spent much of her time exploring her passion for community-related organizing, putting on programming for varying initiatives such as Earth Day. She then parlayed those experiences into the nonprofit space and later got a master’s in human services from Lincoln University in 2013.

Entering politics

But Lewis recalled being cautious when the opportunity to pursue governing at the local level presented itself in Norristown. Lewis recalled an appointed council member approached her about running to fill an opening seat for Councilman Bill Caldwell.

Lewis remembered the conversation vividly and said “the last thing I want to do is join a board that does not do anything.” If she was going to run, she wanted it to be an “active” experience.

“I had never thought of politics,” she said. “I still don’t even think about politics like that. I think about it from a social services lens, but even more so now, not just a social service lens, but as an organizer.”

Lewis ran unopposed and won with 422 votes in the 2015 general election, according to Montgomery County’s election results. She joined the board and worked with several others, including former council members Hakim Jones, Derrick Perry, Sonya Sanders, and Valerie Scott Cooper.

“It was very inspiring and refreshing and we got a lot done,” Lewis said.

Lewis also noted a change in Norristown over the past eight years pertaining to proposed development projects in the residential and commercial spaces. Lewis served as vice president for the past two years.

“I think it’s great and it proves that Norristown can be relevant,” she said.

She’s noted a change over the years in Norristown that ultimately led to the opportunity for more strategic development.

“If you’re not an agent of change you’re a casualty of change,” Lewis said, observing that “we were on the verge I think for a very long time of being a casualty of change.”

Change is necessary

In an early 2023 interview with MediaNews Group, Lewis said “there were a lot of old politics that prevented a lot of the development. There was a lot of strongholds on properties.”

But reflecting on the past and what’s to come, she said that change is necessary for a community to thrive.

“Change is good, change is scary, change is change, and things will look different,” she said. “Norristown will look different, but hopefully it feels like Norristown. It feels the same. It feels like the same community — just that we’ve got people that have better jobs and higher incomes…”

While on council Lewis faced several trials ranging from governing during a global public health crisis to dealing with community opposition about homelessness and the old Airy Street prison.

“It absolutely has gotten worse since the pandemic,” Lewis said of the area’s homelessness crisis. “People want to blame it on the closing of the shelter, which I think the county obviously mishandled. You had five years and they didn’t come up with anything productive other than to ask Norristown to continue the lease.”

Referring to the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center, a 50-bed homeless shelter and resource facility overseen by the Philadelphia-based Resources for Human Development, the space was located inside Building 9, situated on 68 acres of land on the Norristown State Hospital grounds that were conveyed to the municipality for development.

The ongoing saga prompted some controversy, as CHOC served as the county’s largest and only homeless shelter for single adults. Resources for Human Development has still been providing services, but no new facility has been identified.

School board relationship

Lewis also spotlighted the municipality’s “relationship with the school board is a big challenge,” an issue she said never quite made sense.

“We always tried for that but I just didn’t understand what that whole energy was about, never understood it,” she said.

Lewis also noted she encountered an “attitude” from other developers, elected officials and “decision makers” when it came to the county seat.

“They approach Norristown as if we’re this orphan child and they’re coming to save us,” she said. While there are “challenges,” she stressed “our community is strong.”

Lewis noted that attending conferences with the National League of Cities was paramount to gaining knowledge about grant writing and other ways to improve things in Norristown. It’s a piece of advice she hopes her fellow council members follow.

“My best advice is to go to National League of Cities, learn as much as you can, stay off social media,” she said. “Because no matter how well intentioned your comment may be it’s going to get some backlash.”

A majority of the seven-member council is relatively new, with President Thomas Lepera and Councilwoman Rebecca Smith as the two seasoned council members. Council members Rashaad Bates, Tiffani Hendley and Dustin Queenan were elected in the 2021 election. Councilwoman Lauren Hughes was appointed to finish out the term of former Councilman Hakim Jones, who resigned in January to run for district judge. Incoming council members Dionne Lee and William McCoy will fill the vacant seats in District 4 and District 2, respectively.

‘Lead with facts’

“Lead with facts only. Leave your emotions out of it,” she said. “It’s not an emotional thing, even though you may feel emotions about it, but how you choose to, how you decide should be for the best of the community, legally, strategically … procedurally.”

In the meantime, Lewis said she plans to stay involved on the municipality’s recreation advisory council.

“I’m not going too far and that’s a very important project to usher in with the Recreation Department and building a new recreation center,” Lewis said.

There was $5 million of Montgomery County funding set aside through the 2024 fund balance to further the development of a new center.

She sought to pass along some final words of wisdom, both to her constituents and colleagues.

“Thank you for the support. I hope I served you well,” Lewis said. “I hope they’re happy with the direction that we’ve kind of steered Norristown and where we’re handing over the reins. I think they’re in good hands with Tommy but he needs help. He cannot and should not be the only decisions.”

What’s next for Lewis?

But Lewis may not be done yet after spending nearly a decade in government, and is mulling over the idea of higher office in Harrisburg in the 17th senatorial district, which encompasses Montgomery and Delaware counties. The seat is currently occupied by state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti.

“I just would love to learn what the needs of those more affluent communities are for a senator, and how that seat can support them where we know that the needs for smaller communities or less affluent are drastically different and how I would welcome the challenge to balance that and bring the people together,” she said.

“There’s tons of Black Lives Matter signs in Lower Merion, and it’s like OK how do we bring that support to Norristown where it’s a large population of Black and brown families that are lower income and may be struggling with education and health care, those types of things,” she continued. “So how do we bridge that gap and strike a balance between the very polar opposite communities?”

Lewis has yet to announce any formal plans and stressed she’s “still exploring” her options.

“I welcome the challenge,” she said. “I mean I’m up for a challenge, but just I’m torn between serving my community in that capacity as a legislator, and my day job as a community organizer, and really boots on the ground side-by-side with folks that are battling daily struggles. So that’s really is what’s going to be the deciding factor.”