Campaign '06: A Comptroller's Race in Texas Grows Hot and Steamy

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Voters are used to politicians hurling insults back and forth all through the campaign, so a candidate really has to go over the line to get their blood boiling. And this year, in the otherwise relatively obscure race for Texas comptroller, that line has apparently been crossed by the Democratic candidate Fred Head, who made the mistake of insulting a select group of writers whose passionate work is prized by countless Americans—that's right, the romance novelist.

While steamy fiction has briefly become the latest battlefield in the Virginia Senate race—with Republican incumbent George Allen accusing his opponent Jim Webb of demeaning women in various sex scenes from his best-selling novels—Head's equating romance novels with pornography has become the flashpoint of the race. The Democrat's description of Republican opponent Susan Combs as a "pornographic book writer" because she wrote one romance novel 26 years ago has set off an outcry not just in Texas, but throughout the vast community of writers and readers who have been quick to come to the defense of the genre.

Head claims that the race is about character and competence—and that Combs is a hypocrite who publicly supports teaching abstinence and family values but in her spare time writes porn. "She's not who she says she is," Head told TIME of Combs, who has been elected and served as both a state representative and Texas Agriculture Comissioner. Head, an attorney who served in the Texas legislature for 14 years, argues that Combs' work should not corrupt young Texans' minds—but her book, A Perfect Match, is out of print and hard to find. In fact, one of the few places to find it is on Head's own web site, where he has posted excerpts that he finds offensive.

Head's comments are outrageous, mean-spirited and perplexing, says Reggie Bashur, a consultant with Susan Combs's campaign. "The comptroller's office, in Texas, is a key office," Bashur says. "The nuts and bolts of state government run through the comptroller's office. There's a whole array of issues and topics a candidate could discuss. Mr. Head has chosen the romance novel—which has not been a subject of that office in its entire history."

Head says he has nothing against romance novels in general, but the pages he posted read like a typical one, even tame by most of the genre's standards. The woman is smart and successful, she has a great job, she meets a man at work, they fall in love, then they get naked and live happily ever after. The sex scene is three pages, more than halfway through the 220-page book. Nothing is extremely explicit; it's filled with euphemisms like "her warmth" and the last line is "then he took them over the top."

On romance novel blogs people who know nothing about the Texas comptroller's office are passionately discussing the controversy. "It's an insult to romance writers—and readers—everywhere," says Sophie Jordan, a Houston romance writer. "It's banded everyone together—it doesn't matter to anybody if they're Democrat, Republican, or Communist—we've taken great exception to it. For him to label it pornography is labeling everybody who reads the book a pornographer."

And that means primarily women. It's no wonder many view Head's arguments as not just outrageous, but sexist. "He says that a woman cannot be considered moral and upstanding and have written romance," says Houston romance writer Jessica Trapp. "You can be a slut, or you can be prude—and there's nothing in the middle." Romance novels, she adds, promote monogamous, loving relationships. "Calling it porn totally misses the point," she says. She thinks politicians in both races are skirting real policy issues by talking about sex scenes. If they don't like a book, they should put it down, she says. "Fiction is fiction," Trapp says. "You can write about murder in your book—that doesn't make you a murderer."

Head feels confident he's going to win. "She know's she's getting beat," he says. Others are less certain.

"He's definitely alienated a large number of Texas voters," says Jordan. "Democrats that would vote straight ticket not even knowing who he is—they know who he is now."