Get to know ... Michelle Mechanic, glassblower turned policy director
WESTPORT — Michelle Mechanic has always rebelled against those who underestimate her.
She majored in glass at the Rhode Island School of Design, in part, because as a girl she was told at a summer camp in the Berkshires that women in Italy weren’t allowed to blow glass. Following graduation, Mechanic diverged from her burgeoning glass-blowing career to pursue law school, again in reaction to those who doubted her ability.
“I got really sick of people saying, ‘You’re so lucky to have such a smart boyfriend.’ There was this presumption he was the big catch and I didn’t have any academic interests,” the 38-year-old Westport resident said.
Mechanic met her then-boyfriend and now-husband Jesse Gutkowski in high school in suburban Morris County, N.J. She moved in with Gutkowski after college in Cambridge, Mass., while he finished his bachelor’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After starting part-time positions at a glassblowing studio, nonprofit and creperie, Mechanic took a position as a paralegal.
The pair returned to the Garden State so Mechanic could attend Rutgers Law School, where she focused on tax law.
“I took all the tax and corporate law courses because I wanted to prove I could take those courses,” Mechanic said.
But Mechanic chose to forgo tax law after law school and instead worked as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx, N.Y. Raised by a New York City public defender father and an artist mother, Mechanic, an only child, was influenced by the careers of both her parents, especially the social justice aspect integral to her father’s work in criminal law.
Mechanic resigned from work as a district attorney, however, because the work had an effect opposite to what she hoped.
“I despised it. I didn’t like putting people in jail. I didn’t like incarceration. It felt unusual to be a white person of privilege calling for the incarceration of low-income people of color,” Mechanic said.
From there, Mechanic opened a law practice out of her and Gutkowski’s New Jersey home, where she represented clients in victim advocacy, criminal law and tax and corporate estate planning cases. Her most high-profile case was being the lawyer for “Victim 2” in the 2013 trial of “cannibal cop” Gilberto Valle, the former New York City police officer charged with plotting to kidnap, slaughter and eat women.
Private practice enabled Mechanic to work from home and spend time with her young son, Abraham, now 9.
“It was probably the most optimal situation I’ve ever had,” said Mechanic, who also has a 4-year-old son, Myles.
The setup wasn’t as optimal for Gutkowski, who commuted each day from New Jersey to his finance job in Greenwich. So in 2011, the family moved to Westport. At first, Mechanic continued her practice in New Jersey, but the long commutes and nights in hotel rooms became too much, and Mechanic stepped back from law work.
Mechanic found new roles in Westport, especially in the arts community, which she said will always be closest to her heart. For the past two years, Mechanic served as Parent Teacher Association Council co-chairwoman for the elementary school arts program, ArtSmart, and is president of the nonprofit Friends of Westport Public Arts Collections.
“I was really nervous about moving to Westport from New Jersey, but I’ve met so many brilliant and interesting women here. It’s really been a treat and a pleasant surprise,” Mechanic said.
One of the women Mechanic befriended is Greenwich resident Dita Bhargava, whom she met at a luncheon over a year ago and bonded with over discussion of policy ideas for Bhargava’s run for governor. In February, Bhargava pivoted her Democratic campaign toward a bid for state treasurer and brought Mechanic on as policy director for the campaign.
Preparing for work as a policy director proved a steep learning curve, Mechanic said, but said the work is fun and may be her best-fit job yet. Throughout her life, Mechanic has straddled the creative art world and the stricter world of law, and said policy allows her to tap into both sides of her brain, including her interests in social justice and good government.
“We (the treasury) can encourage good behavior and discourage unscrupulous behavior through investments,” Mechanic said, noting the campaign’s ideas to invest treasury’s money in companies with socially responsible practices to earn a profit on the investments of state workers and garner a positive social impact.
“I think a lot of my journey is about change. As a child, I wanted to change the world through art. I hope I made some small changes through the practice of law, and I hope I can contribute some changes in my work with Dita,” Mechanic said.
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