An interview with the "unexperienced college student" who was elected as his county's tax collector
Sebastian Cothran is a UNC-Asheville senior who's been entrusted by the people of Haywood County to handle $40 million in tax revenue. How did he win? Depends on who you ask.
When I talked to Sebastian Cothran on Wednesday afternoon, he was driving to class at UNC-Asheville, where he’s majoring in political science and accounting. Those two things may come in handy soon when Cothran, a 21-year-old, will become the Haywood County tax collector responsible for bringing in about $40 million in revenue. How did he get that job? He was elected, that’s how.
I learned about this after I saw a headline in The Mountaineer that read “Haywood voters elect unexperienced college student as new tax collector.” It may surprise you to know that before this, I was not well acquainted with local politics in Haywood County. But as elections go, this one was clearly a big upset. From The Mountaineer:
Tax Collector Greg West, who achieved the highest tax collection rate in the county’s history, was ousted by Sebastian Cothran, who has not yet finished school at UNC-Asheville.
Cothran had something West didn’t, however: an "R" beside his name on the ballot. GOP candidates swept every contested race in Haywood County on Tuesday.
West did not respond to an email request for comment from the Rabbit Hole late Wednesday afternoon. I don’t blame him.
Look, there’s a lot to talk about after this week’s elections, especially in North Carolina. In Rockwell, voters allowed liquor-by-the-drink, a ballot initiative led by a Mexican restaurant that got politically savvy so it could serve margaritas. In Onslow County, the lead vote getter for Soil and Water Supervisor was a man who refers to himself as “Mr. Toad.” Ted Budd, who won the race to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate, has a son with the most splendid Alabama Waterfall-style mullet I have ever seen.
But nothing quite matches the come-out-of-nowhere shock of Sebastian Cothran’s win. From the outside, it feels like shades of Alvin Greene mixed with Ben Wyatt. It’s been described as partisanship gone too far. This political outlier is wrapped in an even bigger anomaly: Haywood County is the only county left in North Carolina that still elects a tax collector. This story literally could not happen anywhere else.
How did he do it? I mean, there are theories. “In the absence of other information, people rely on partisan identification,” says Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “Sure, party ID matters in all elections, but you know where it really matters? In low information elections. And I've never seen an example of a lower information environment than Haywood County tax collector.”
Cothran doesn’t exactly see it that way. In a phone interview, he talked about why he filed to run, how he won, his qualifications, and why his quasi-official media picture shows him wearing flannel over a “Fallout” t-shirt. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
RABBIT HOLE: Tell me about yourself.
SEBASTIAN COTHRAN: I’ve lived in Canton my entire life. I’m a lifelong Haywood County resident. I have deep ties. My five-times great-grandfather served for the Haywood Highlanders during the Civil War.
RABBIT HOLE: What are you majoring in at UNC-Asheville?
COTHRAN: Accounting and political science.
RABBIT HOLE: So this position is sort of at the nexus of what you’re working on, right?
COTHRAN: It exactly matches what I’m going to school for. And it has the politics aspect too.
RABBIT HOLE: Had you been politically active in Haywood County before you filed to run?
COTHRAN: I vote every time I can. Primaries. Municipal elections. I’ve been to a few of the Haywood GOP meetings. I’m the treasurer of the College Republicans at UNCA.
RABBIT HOLE: What got you in to politics?
COTHRAN: I’ve liked it ever since I’ve been in school. I like watching politics. A lot of people don’t focus on it, but it really does change things in our country. Since I’ve been about 18, I knew I could be in it. I’ve been active. I tried to run for alderman when I was 18, but I was too young. So I thought I’d give it a try, because if I didn’t run, my opponent would have been unopposed.
RABBIT HOLE: Was that your motivation to do it?
COTHRAN: It also matched what I was going to school for. To do politics and do what I majored in? It’s the perfect combination. I thought I’d try it out, just to see what happened, and thank goodness I won.
RABBIT HOLE: So you filed in December?
COTHRAN: Almost a year ago, in December. Me and my friends were both talking about running that day. He was gonna run for county commissioner. He did file, but he withdrew once there were more candidates in the primary. Me and a small group of my friends, we’re pretty politically active. We talk about politics.
RABBIT HOLE: What was that like to go down there and put your name in?
COTHRAN: It was pretty exhilarating, just filling out all of the paperwork. There was a ton of it. You know you’re getting into the thick of stuff once you’ve filled it out. Also, I knew there’d be other candidates there. The newspaper people were out there and waiting. The second you get done filing, they interview you. Like, the [newspaper’s] picture shows me in my Fallout shirt. I wasn’t expecting to have my picture taken or to be interviewed. I wasn’t prepared for that. But I’ve learned my lesson now.
RABBIT HOLE: So, what kind of campaign did you run?
COTHRAN: Well, it is a tough position to campaign for because there’s not really much you can change if you’re the collector. They don’t have too much authority, they just collect [taxes]. But obviously I’m a Republican. I got the endorsement of the county party. I was on their little yellow handout for the conservative voter guide. I just emphasized that I’m passionate about public service. I’ve been a poll worker since I was 18. And also, I know a lot of people, so I talked to them. On election day, I was campaigning. And one of the things that I am going to try to focus on when I’m in office is: A lot of seniors and disabled veterans don’t know about the property tax exemptions, or don’t think they qualify. I’m going to work on getting the outreach out. They deserve the exemptions, if they can get them.
RABBIT HOLE: How did you set yourself apart from your opponent in the race?
COTHRAN: We are pretty different. He’s the incumbent. He’s been in government for 13 years. He was in the assessor’s office before then. But it was a stark difference. I’m a young candidate. He’s been in there for a while. He’s more than double my age and he’s older than both of my parents. So it’s kind of like a generational shift. But a lot of people in Haywood County are pretty Republican. That helped too. So I ran as a Republican. I’m not ashamed of it.
RABBIT HOLE: It’s not a partisan position, but partisanship may have been one of the big factors that led to your election.
COTHRAN: Well, a lot of people do just vote based on their party. Which if you look at the results, I did a lot worse than the party. So even in the tax office, people are looking at the candidates rather than just the party. Some of the other [Republican candidates in Haywood County] got about 60 percent of the vote. I got around 52. My opponent is a Democrat. He has experience. He has a lot more name recognition than I do. But I was out on the ground talking to people on Election Day. I had boots on the ground. I had to campaign for it. I didn’t just get in because I’m a Republican.
RABBIT HOLE: Haywood County is the last county in North Carolina with an elected tax collector?
COTHRAN: When I take office, I’ll be the only elected tax collector in the state. I think it should be elected. Mike Matthews—he was in office before Greg West—he had a lot of scandals and they were able to get him out of there. People are paying their taxes. They should have some control over who’s in charge of it.
RABBIT HOLE: So, what are you doing now? How are you going to balance this new position and your classes?
COTHRAN: I do have some transition stuff. I have to go meet with the county manager on Tuesday. But I’m still doing my classes, in fact, I’m driving to one right now. The semester ends right at the very end of the month. Very early December is usually when you take office anyway. Obviously my obligations to the county and the voters and the taxpayers will come first. In the spring, I have three classes left and they're all at night. So I'll still be able to do the job and and finish my school.
RABBIT HOLE: The knee-jerk reaction to your story in the way that it all sets up is: The Democratic incumbent gets swept out of office because every county-wide office turned Republican Tuesday night. There was a wave. From your vantage point, how do you see it?
COTHRAN: Those stories that are out there, they’re just trying to paint me like I’m a politician just trying to game the system. I’m not. I’m genuinely passionate about accounting and public services and taxes and serving the community. Even thought Republicans did sweep, I had to work for it. Once I'm in there, I have to do the work. It’s right at $40 million a year that I'll be in charge of collecting. It pays for EMS, fire departments, and police. For a lot of people, if they don't have these things, that could be life or death. I do take this job very seriously. I didn't run just because I'm 21 and I wanted to make a statement to the political people. I genuinely did want to serve. I didn't just run because I'm a Republican and I wanted to unseat a Democrat.
RABBIT HOLE: And to clarify: You filed to run because you wanted to do it, but you also did it because you saw an opportunity, right? Would you have filed to run if there had been other Republicans in the race already?
COTHRAN: I probably would have, because I've been eyeballing this race for a while, just because it's something that fits what I'm doing. Luckily I didn't have a primary. My opponent didn't have a primary either. Me and him have been duking it out, doing candidate forums and newspaper articles since last December. It’s been stressful but it’s fun, and I’m glad I ran, and I don’t personally have anything against my opponent. He’s nice to me. I’ve talked to him personally. He’s run a good campaign.
RABBIT HOLE: You were just mentioning that you're now basically in charge of $40 million. Are you nervous? Do you feel like you’re as prepared as you can be? How are you feeling about it?
COTHRAN: I look forward to working with the staff at the tax office. I know that the people underneath West have done a good job, and I hope that they stay to continue their good work. It'll be a learning curve for sure, but that's with any position. Still, [people] try to paint me as unqualified. I'm an accounting student. I'm a member of the accounting association. I'm an honor student. Like, I'm bursting accounting. I'm one of the weird accounting people that loves taxes. That's my favorite area of accounting.
I believe that there should be a generational change in politics. I'm younger, but if I wasn't an accounting student or if I didn't think I was reasonably qualified, I wouldn't run for this position. Everybody that runs for office should be qualified and should be well versed in what they're doing. So, I look forward to working with the staff, learning the ins and outs of the job, and hopefully I can have a productive four years.