She stopped running for others and stepped into governor's shoes

Kentucky Gov.-elect Martha Layne Collins insists it was always the organizational side of politics that intrigued her. She never really planned to run for office until her husband, Bill, put the idea to her one night in 1975.

After working four years in the trenches as a volunteer in Kentucky's Democratic Party, she had come home with yet another offer to be someone's campaign chairman - and a promise of a job to come if the candidate won.

''My husband said, 'I think you've put in enough hours and traveled enough miles for everybody else - it's time you either run or come home.' That was his way of saying, 'I'm for you, and I'll support you.' ''

Mrs. Collins, who will be inaugurated as this state's first woman governor Dec. 13, has been running ever since.

This mother of two and former high school home-economics teacher won her first race, as clerk of the state's former Court of Appeals, in 1975. Four years later she was elected lieutenant governor. In that job she served as acting governor - a ''test drive,'' she says - for 480 days, while Democratic Gov. John Y. Brown, the flamboyant Kentucky Fried Chicken entrepreneur, was away from his desk, either for health reasons or on business travel.

In taking office Mrs. Collins becomes the nation's only current female governor and the third woman in the United States who did not succeed a husband in that job. A few Kentuckians are still stunned by the fact that a woman actually won the top post in this politically and socially conservative state. But there also appears to be widespread pride in Kentucky's pioneering role.

''I think it's going to be real nice,'' says a smiling Carol Perry, a waitress in Frankfort's Putt's Restaurant, of the prospect of four years with a woman at the helm of the nearby State Capitol. ''I've only heard one gentleman make one smutty remark about it. But like I told him: 'Give her a chance - she may surprise you.' ''

In an interview in the lieutenant governor's office, Mrs. Collins talked about her campaign style, the job ahead, and the role that gender played in her election.

Although she expects her actions to be scrutinized more closely because she's a woman, she would just as soon dismiss the gender issue, arguing that voters have long since shown it made little difference in electing her to other offices. ''I didn't become a woman last November [1982] when I announced.''

Yet being a woman is cited by her aides as a key reason that so much (close to $5 million) was spent on her campaign, and her television advertisements did carry the tag line, ''Let's make history.'' Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1 in Kentucky, some Republicans had forecast a substantial crossover vote in their favor because the Democratic candidate was female. Mrs. Collins disregarded it. ''Our figures showed that there were as many people who would vote for me because I was a woman as would vote against me because I was one.''

One factor that many feel helped her: her tempered position on feminist issues. She opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest and is a lukewarm supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Jim Bunning, her Republican opponent in the governor's race, suggested in his ads that he would be a tougher, more aggressive leader in fighting for everything from better education in the state to more economic development.

Partly to counter such suspicions, Mrs. Collins issued a strong anticrime position paper early in the campaign and announced her willingness to order executions under the state's death-penalty law.

She views her frequent travels throughout the state and one-on-one talks with voters as a major factor in her steady success at the polls.

''I have always been a very accessible person,'' she says. ''I do a lot of talking eyeball to eyeball. I think you get a better perspective that way and a good feeling for people's concerns. Sometimes they just want to fuss at you a little bit or they feel better if they can get something off their chest, even if you may not be able to solve the problem. I think people deserve that from their elected officials.''

Governor Brown, who is barred by Kentucky law from seeking a successive second term, stressed economic development and played down the importance of party politics in his gubernatorial run four years ago. By contrast, Mrs. Collins has made it clear she intends to be a strong party leader.

She insists that her administration will continue require competitive bidding on contracts and that patronage as it was once known here is ''dead and buried and won't be revived.''

But she says she does not consider providing jobs for loyal, ''qualified'' workers who have put in long hours for the party as patronage. She has already appointed two of her top fund-raisers to key cabinet posts. And she has earmarked a sizable chunk of her campaign surplus to help repay debts of the state Democratic Party headquarters here.

Mrs. Collins is viewed by many as a highly skilled political strategist. She pushed hardest for higher standards in education, from competency tests for grade school and high school graduates to establishment of a statewide disciplinary code.

She deftly avoided taking strong stands on such controversial issues as a right-to-work law. It was, as her campaign press secretary Hank Lindsey describes it, a deliberate ''lie low'' strategy designed to avoid giving any added credibility to Mr. Bunning's candidacy. Mrs. Collins rarely mentions her opponents in any election, managing to keep any antagonism minimal. One former opponent became her campaign manager.

She grew up as an only child in the small town of Bagdad in central Kentucky, where she learned how to do everything from fish to drive a tractor. An active Baptist, she met her husband at a Baptist summer camp during her college years. He is both a dentist and a banker, and was a key fund-raiser in this year's campaign.

''He's always been someone I run things by, and sometimes he has the scoop on my decisions,'' she says of his current role. ''But he's into a lot of things and he's pretty much his own person.''

The Collinses' daughter, Marla, is a junior majoring in communications at the University of Kentucky, her mother's alma mater. It is 22-year-old Steve who has the stronger interest in politics. Expecting to head soon for law school, he has been a state Senate page and played an active role in his mother's campaign.

The family will soon be moving from the lieutenant governor's mansion into the governor's mansion - Kentucky is one of the few states with a mansion for each of its top two elected officials.

Just as the campaign preceding it, the job shows every sign, Mrs. Collins says, of being all-consuming. ''Government is not an 8-to-5 job,'' she says. ''You can delegate and relegate in business hours, but that's not, in my opinion , what it's all about. You're never finished. There's always something else you could be doing, somebody else you could be calling.''

Accordingly, the governor-elect says she has had little time for movies, concerts, or reading unless they are work-connected.

''I start books but I don't always get them finished - I have a long list that people have said I need to read.'' In sports, she has largely given up golf and tennis in favor of walking and at-home exercises.

Martha Layne Collins has come a long way in the 12 years since she began as a volunteer in the Kentucky gubernatorial campaign of US Sen. Wendell Ford (D). In recognition of her effort, he appointed her to the Democratic National Committee in 1972.

Now she is increasingly mentioned as a vice-presidential prospect. ''It's an honor and a compliment to be considered.''

Would she then consider such a role? ''I don't think you can ever say what you'll do. You just have to do your best each day. We don't know what the future holds for any of us.''

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