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Mystery group behind Martin Walsh ads should reveal donors now

The last-minute ad blitz by outside groups whose donors won’t be revealed until after Tuesday’s mayoral election makes the best case possible for instant disclosure of funding sources. The half-million-dollar ad buy by a political committee called “One Boston” — about which essentially nothing is known except that it supports Marty Walsh — could be the decisive difference in a close race. The one person whose name appears on the paperwork for the group, Jocelyn Hutt, should reveal the identity of the donors before the election. And Walsh should demand that she do so. It’s hardly a trivial matter: Voters rightly should wonder who is seeking Walsh’s favor and what they hope to gain. In a strong-mayor system like Boston’s, where a mayor has endless opportunities to steer contracts and award jobs, it is absolutely essential that voters know the identities of a mayoral candidate’s backers.

One Boston’s ad, which highlights a training program Walsh started as a union leader, is hardly offensive in and of itself. But it represents a potentially game-changing push over the airwaves, without providing any clue about who is behind it. The only name on One Boston’s official paperwork is that of Hutt, a 55-year-old Roslindale resident. Where might the funds be coming from? In all likelihood, not from Hutt; in a letter to the Globe a few years back, she wrote about deciding not to take her kids to a favored play because of the high price of tickets. That being the case, it seems unlikely she’d be dropping $480,000 on TV ads for Walsh.

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But Hutt won’t reveal anything about One Boston’s funding, and under current law, the committee doesn’t have to disclose its donors until early next year, long after this election is over. Walsh has also benefited from heavy spending by American Working Families, another group whose exact donors remain mysterious, though at least some of its money comes from organized labor. That group has spent $1.1 million on Walsh’s behalf. John Connolly’s effort has benefited from spending by two education-reform groups. Most of the $700,000 spent on his behalf has come from Democrats for Education Reform, which is running an ad praising his educational efforts.

Still, two differences are worth noting here. In the preliminary, Connolly, after prompting by other candidates, asked outside groups to cease and desist. Further, he was willing to offset any outside spending by donating a similar amount of his campaign funds to charity, provided the other candidates made the same pledge. Walsh declined. Second, Democrats for Education Reform is not a pop-up group; rather, its education-reform agenda is so well known that its presence in the race is something a unionized teacher might well hold against Connolly.

One way to address the problem of mystery dollars would be to change state law to require instant disclosure of donors to groups making independent expenditures like these. Because one shadowy group can fund another, however, that could be a little like pulling apart nesting dolls. To ensure transparency, the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance would also need the legal power to trace donations back to their real source.

Obviously none of that will happen before Boston elects its next mayor. But it should be a good-government priority next year. Meanwhile, Bostonians shouldn’t be left to wonder about the real agenda of the shadowy groups or individuals spending so heavily to elect Walsh.

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