Of the many Republican victories in the 2022 general election amid a red wave sweeping across western North Carolina that has resulted in multiple GOP upsets, that of 21-year-old Sebastian Cothran remains the most surprising.
When the inexperienced UNC Asheville student decided to run as a tax collector, he didn’t do so in coordination with the Haywood County GOP, although he eventually got their approval and appeared on voter guides. This led to much speculation that he would win because people knew who he was and trusted what they saw as serious ambition or if they had just blindly voted for the candidate with an ‘R’ next to her name.
But Cothran isn’t too worried about it now.
Since his election, Cothran, who told The Smoky Mountain News he has lived in Canton all his life, has been the subject of statewide intrigue not just because of his age, but because he got about 52.5% of the vote to unseat Democrat Greg West. , which had previously achieved the highest tax collection rate in county history at 98.35%.
Cothran said his brief time in the political spotlight didn’t bother him too much – after all, there will always be supporters and detractors. He said he just wanted to get to work. One of his first steps is simply to learn more about what is needed to do the job, given his lack of prior experience. Although he said he still hasn’t talked to West about flipping the office, he’s still doing what he can.
“I looked at some of the tax documents like the Machinery Act,” he said. “And I had meetings with the county manager and spoke to a few commissioners. I’ve been working on the transition, filling out the paperwork and doing stuff like that, just trying to make sure I make the transition as easy as possible so I can start racing once I take over.
Cothran said while there will be a lot to learn, the one thing he can lean on when he takes on the role is his work ethic.
“If you talk to my professors or the board of elections, because I worked for them, anybody I’ve had contact with, they’ll talk about my work ethic,” he said. . “I had my Associates in a year and a half. And now I’m double majoring. I’ll have two degrees in four years, which means I know how to get things done.
He specifically said that during his transition he will prove his dedication to the job, specifically noting that he will not have any of the issues that bogged down Republican Mike Matthews when he held the post from January 2015 to January 2019. While Matthews had some attendance issues, he also faced scrutiny for improperly waiving tax payments.
“You can’t show patronage in government,” Cothran said. “You have to treat everyone the same, whether it’s a family or not, regardless of their party affiliation.”
County Manager Bryant Morehead helped Cothran get up to speed. He was candid that he was impressed with Cothran’s attitude and maturity.
“The magnitude of this is not lost on him,” Morehead said. “I think he’s engaged in the work; he takes it seriously.
And he better be. The tax collector is responsible for making sure everyone pays, or at least as close to everyone as possible. County services, including those like police and emergency medical services that can save lives, depend on a healthy fund balance — a fund balance primarily fueled by property tax collections. The job itself requires a combination of technical and regulatory knowledge, as well as an ability to deal with people who may face difficult circumstances.
“Well, there will always be people who will hate me. That’s the nature of the tax system,” Cothran said. “I have a bit of leeway, but I have to, first of all, follow the laws. For some people, as long as they really try, I can make payment plans…I will work with people as much as possible.
A big question surrounding Cothran’s election was what his bond might look like, given he’s so young and has no practical experience to prepare him for his new job. Obligations can vary considerably. For Matthews, bail was $800,000, a relatively high number due to his prior credit issues; this bond cost the county $9,000. The board of commissioners voted on Monday to allow the chief financial officer to seek $1 million bail for Cothran. Cothran told SMN his credit score was in the 700s, which is a decent number for someone so young, and Morehead noted that the high bail was not specifically related to credit issues.
“Due to Cothran’s inexperience, we decided to increase it to $1 million, so if something goes wrong, we have protection,” Morehead said.
With all the questions surrounding Cothran’s qualifications, it’s worth considering who he is outside of the fray. Although he was ridiculed on social media for his age and his appearance on drop-off day wearing a T-shirt with a video game logo, he said he actually didn’t spend much time , if at all, to play video games. He said that on a typical Saturday afternoon, if he has free time, he probably hangs out with his four younger siblings or reads. He noted that he was a fan of classic American literature, specifically mentioning the works of John Steinbeck and Herman Melville.
“And obviously I’m still in school until spring,” he said. “So I don’t play video games like I used to.”
Ultimately, Cothran said that amid all the noise surrounding his win over West, he wanted to remind people that he planned to put public service first, as he said every elected official should. .
“I intend to do the job to the best of my abilities. If anyone is in trouble or just needs to talk to me, then talk to me. I will be at the tax office,” he said. “I’m passionate about what I’m about to start doing. I’m not just trying to play with the political system. I really care.