Most college seniors have a lot on their minds, whether it’s making sure to graduate on time or worrying about how to secure a “real job.”
Sebastian Cothran, a 21-year-old UNC Asheville senior, might just have a little more on his plate than most of his classmates. A Republican, Cothran won the job of Haywood County Tax Collector in the Nov. 8 election, unseating incumbent Democrat Greg West — and finding himself responsible for collecting $40 million in county tax revenues.
“I’m prepared as I can be,” Cothran said Nov. 11 in a phone interview from the UNCA campus. “I would say it’s going to be a learning curve, but it would be a learning curve for anybody who takes the office.”
A Canton resident whose roots go back five generations in Haywood County, Cothran is double-majoring in accounting and political science. The son of Richard and Lori Cothran, Sebastian Cothran says he understands what it takes to balance a budget, and he stresses that he’s passionate about public service.
“I’ve been a poll worker for Haywood County since I was 18,” said Cothran, a 2019 graduate of Pisgah High School. “I do want to serve the community.”
Haywood County is the only county in North Carolina with an elected tax collector position, and Republicans hold sway in the traditionally conservative, rural county. But Cothran said he didn’t run just because he thought a Republican could take the office.
“A lot of people have said (I won) because I’m Republican, which that probably helped a little bit, but I did have to campaign for it and work for it,” Cothran said, noting he had “boots on the ground on election day.”
Cothran also noted that his opponent would’ve been unopposed had he not run.
“I have nothing against my opponent personally, but I believe the voters should have choices,” Cothran said.
Cothran won with 13,826 votes, compared to 12,489 for West, according to unofficial election results. No Democrats won a contested race in Haywood County.
West, the incumbent, had the highest recorded tax collection rate in Haywood’s history, as reported by The Mountaineer newspaper.
‘It does say something about partisanship’
Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University, said Cothran is “not the first nor the last inexperienced politician to win office.”
“With that said, it does say something about partisanship,” Cooper said, noting the Republican dominance of politics outside of Buncombe County. “In over 170 elections that were competitive in Western North Carolina, Democrats won only five of those outside of Buncombe County.”
Cooper doesn’t doubt Cothran has a heart for service.
“So part of his story is his legitimate reason for running, the public service aspect,” Cooper said. “But I think we’d be naive to say his partisanship didn’t help.”
While North Carolina’s elections can be confusing, and Haywood does have the only elected tax collector in the state, Cooper said the political system is working as it’s supposed to.
“Elections have consequences,” Cooper said. “If it turns out the tax (revenue) takes a nose dive under his leadership, that has consequences.”
Four years from now, voters will have their say on Cothran’s performance.
“I don’t think this is an example of a failure of democracy, but I do think it’s an example of the almost supreme power of partisanship,” Cooper said.
‘It’s definitely nerve-wracking’
The tax collector in Haywood is responsible for ensuring that millions of dollars in revenue get paid, money that funds a wide range of public services.
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking,” Cothran said. “I’ll be in charge of collecting $40 million for the county, but I understand how important it is — EMS, fire department — all these things could be life and death for somebody. So I understand how important it is, and I’m not going to crack under pressure.”
Cothran becomes the second-youngest person elected to office in North Carolina, behind Chris Suggs, a Kinston City Council member elected in 2021. Suggs is also 21, but a few months younger than Haywood’s new tax collector, Cothran said.
Kinston.com noted that Suggs was the youngest person ever elected to political office in North Carolina.
Cothran said he’s operated a landscaping business and sold items on Ebay, so he understands balancing a budget and how to run a business.
The tax collector’s salary when he filed to run was about $55,000, but the county recently raised it to about $70,000.
Cothran will begin his four-year term in early December. He said he’s scheduled all night classes next semester so he can work.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gotta admire this young man for stepping up to a pretty big job at this young age. I wish Sebastian Cothran the best in this important position.
What upsets me is that I did not vote for you. I voted for no one because on my Republican ballet your name was not on there. How did this happen.
I voted first day of early voting and I refused to vote for a Democrat. So if there was no Republican running I left it blank. There were a few that had no Republicans listed on my ballet. I wonder if there were more and not on ballets? I’ll know for sure next elections…
Again Congratulations and you will do a good job because you know what’s at stake…
An interesting question. What exactly is at stake in the Tax Collector’s office in Haywood County?
It appears that you answered your question in your second post below.
Did you forget to turn your ballot over? His name was on the back… They don’t do straight party ballots in Haywood, everyone in your precinct gets the same ballot.
We had a very professional Tax Collector with among the best collection records in the state, who took over from another Republican four years ago with the tax collector’s office in complete disarray because of his incompetence.
But “I’m not going to vote for anyone with (D) beside the name” is apparently a lot more important than competence in a job that has absolutely nothing to do with partisanship.
A sad state of affairs.
I see no comment from this young gentleman about why he wanted this particular job(?)
$70K, probably. That’s a pretty good starting salary for a senior at UNC-A. Hopefully he’ll do a good job for Haywood County. If he fails like another young Republican whose name I refuse to utter, I hope citizens have the good sense to vote him out.
According to the article, Haywood residents fired their most successful tax collector ever in favor of hiring a person with absolutely no relevant job experience, and as of yet, no degree in higher education, with the expectation that he would collect taxes for a 555 square mile area with 67k residents.
I can’t imagine anyone seriously believes this will end well for Haywood county.
Exactly . Prime example of foolishly blind partisanship .
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